Culture

Beirut artist’s Berlin work finds art in policing

BEIRUT: There’s an aesthetic of dereliction that’s familiar to any place where ruins are part of the landscape. In some cases, Rome say, age and monumentality are seen to ennoble the remains. In others, like Beirut, derelict structures are residues of a more recent past, less a symptom of careful conservation and integration than neglect and speculation.

The recent pairing of economic collapse and pandemic lockdown has cast its own aesthetic over Beirut. It isn’t expressed in material terms, but in the quality of light – or its absence.

For anyone exempted from the country’s recent 24-hour lockdown, walking at nighttime has been weirdly sensuous. With the city’s blackouts less predictable and streetlamps and traffic lights as inert as once-illuminated signage, ads and billboards, navigating random residential neighborhoods became a more active experience.

As residents (and their cars) were mostly invisible, shops shuttered and foot traffic sparse, the dark in many neighbourhoods was deepened by stillness. When car headlights did approach, the ambient gloom heightened their glare.

Minding the edges of the shadows were the security services’ checkpoints. As the city stirred from lockdown and demonstrators returned to block streets with burning tires and garbage, the enclosing blackness made the flames seem all the more stark.

Light, dark and policing were features of Beirut life in the months before lockdown, of course. When Lebanon’s citizens came together to demand an end to the political status quo, Kahraba Lubnan [Electricite du Liban] (the brutalist Mar Mikhael structure that’s the public face of the country’s wobbly electricity regime) became a focal point for protestors. It was for them a symbol of administrative incompetence and political indifference. Demonstrators were greeted with teargas, and other materiel, energetically lobbed.

“All of Your Stars Are but Dust on my Shoes,” a short essay film by Haig Aivazian, is interested in light, dark and policing. An audio-visual collage, the film reflects upon how these themes have resonated through the mediascape.

It draws upon sources from around the world, but footage from Lebanon’s bipolar year is central. The film’s lyrical title is first uttered by a protester during a television interview from her hospital bed. Near the end of the work, it’s chanted again during a street demonstration, paired with footage of disobedient civilians dancing dabkeh in the middle of a darkened motorway.

Aivazian’s film is a companion piece to his 2019 short “Prometheus.” The new work had its festival debut earlier this month during the Berlin International Film Festival, where it streamed as part of the Forum Expanded – a program devoted to art in film.

“All Your Stars” commences with some underwater footage, shot alongside a large whale. This sequence is followed by the more startling image of a pod of sperm whales suspended vertically in the water – some head-up, others flukes up. The tableau suggests the creatures have been hung in preparation for processing. (The attribution in the film’s closing credits describes the whales as sleeping.)

A voiceover describes how the crews of whaling ships decapitate their prey and bore holes in their heads so they can extract the oil within. “Whale men,” another voice states, “turned these creatures of darkness, these god-spited, vicious monsters, into sources of light.”

He’s referring to the antique technology of the whale oil lamp, and the collage lingers over several street lamp technologies. An animated commercial video illustrates a system of streetlights that works as a networked data collector, recording and charting automobile and pedestrian traffic, modulating its light intensity accordingly.

The video doesn’t mention whether facial recognition and profiling software is part of the street lamps’ toolkit, but the artist does sample an apt American TV news segment. Standing beneath a high-intensity LED streetlamp at nighttime, the journalist ends his report with the question, “Does the future really have to be this bright?”

“All Your Stars” and “Prometheus” grew out of Aivazian’s research into the militarization of big city police forces and an increasing use of police tactics by military forces around the world.

“I came to realize that the first mass surveillance technology developed by police was public lighting,” he says, “street lights. I started doing research into that history and the complexity of how it’s employed or deployed by power.

“Sometimes the exercise of power consists in pointing the light, exposing somebody. Other times it’s about withholding or withdrawing the light – as during a curfew for example.”

In a sense, Aivazian says, “All Your Stars” is a speculative history of public lighting.

This story includes reminders of the challenges of controlling electricity itself. One series of clips is concerned with dysfunctional public lighting – the banal flickering of streetlamps, electric arcs erupting menacingly from high-tension towers, and mysterious, “somewhat terrifying” flare-like lights suspended midair.

Snatches of this history play in counterpoint to the moral associations humans project upon light and dark which, by extension, justify police intervention.

An enthusiast of antiquated lighting technologies shows off an antecedent of the flashlight called “the dark lantern” – an oil lamp whose light the user can “close” or “open” at will. As they had to patrol poorly lit streets, he enthuses, the dark lantern was very handy for 19th-century cops.

The film doesn’t stereotype cops as armored thugs toting military-grade weapons. Though there is footage of uniformed men charging into civilians, truncheons raised, the first substantial law enforcement clip samples a promotional video commissioned by the Marion County Sheriff’s office. It frames the “performance” of a gaggle of patrol cars, arrayed in a pitch-black parking lot, turning their various lights on-and-off in time to upbeat electronic music.

The sheriff’s dubious lurch at “hip” is juxtaposed with a moment from a nighttime demonstration held in Downtown Beirut in the past year. A man’s voice rises from the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque’s PA system, imploring security personnel to withdraw from the building’s entrance, where women and children have taken refuge, and to refrain from assaulting them with more teargas.

Aivazian was less interested in documenting law enforcement practices themselves than in their consequences.

The collage alights upon the decadelong Syrian conflict. One segment, comprised of satellite images of Aleppo, shot between 2012 and 2016, illustrates how drastically the city was darkened during the regime’s Russian-amplified siege.

In counterpoint, the survivor of a regime detention center describes how his two-year-long confinement in an underground cell passed in near-complete darkness.

Aivazian says he was interested in “what it means to live in darkness, for example, which is what led me to focus on the Lebanese context.”

The strips of Aivazian’s collage fasten his speculative history of public lighting to Beirut’s current aesthetic of disintegration.

A young man’s voice, crooning out a tune about how her heart is like an abandoned house, echoes within a vacant expressway tunnel. Demonstrating shabab drag a felled electricity pylon across a motorway to block traffic. Others launch fireworks into the darkness as if they were weapons. Soldiers are seen charging toward ranks of burning tires blocking a highway.

“Thieves!” a protester screams over a barricade before Kahraba Lubnan. “You stole state funds! You make us pay! For nothing!”

Infection rates and vaccines allowing, the Berlinale intends to project “All of Your Stars Are but Dust on my Shoes,” and the rest of its films, to the public in June, 2021

 

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