Culture

Tapping creative resources in Sin al-Fil and Toulouse

BEIRUT: “We nearly canceled this event two days before it started,” recalls Amanda Abi Khalil. “It was a huge decision to go ahead because it coincided with a week that the fuel shortage crisis was worsening badly and there was no electricity.

“The project revolved around bringing together seven artists, two of them coming from Palestine. We’d struggled so much with their visas to Lebanon and, when they finally came through, we thought it would be a pity to cancel or postpone once again. So we took the common decision to go ahead, but to downscale some of the planned activities.”

When Abi Khalil founded Temporary Art Platform in 2014, its aims included cultivating public art that’s at once collaborative, critically engaged, and sensitive to its social location. A good part of TAP’s early work revolved around public art commissions, research projects, and residencies that dropped clusters of artists into villages around Lebanon.

TAP’s most recent event, “Art, Ecology and the Commons,” (27 Aug-5 Sept), reflected these goals. It assembled six artists for 10 days of study and exchange near the Beirut River in Sin al-Fil, at a small woodland site replanted in May 2019 by the architecture firm theOtherDada. In parallel, TAP exhibited a series of art commissions and sponsored a public program of activities with its collaborators.

The wooded location tapped into green sentiments fostered by the deepening climate crisis, which has inflected the work of several of the participating artists. The revived green space also had deeper resonance. A proper forest ecology is made up of complex webs of organic interdependence that, TAP proposes, could be a metaphor for institutional collaboration.

Such collaboration is a much-discussed ideal that, given the challenges confronting Lebanon’s cultural sector since 2020, has become a pressing need.

The paper asked Abi Khalil to reflect on TAP’s recent and future initiatives at this uncertain time.

“At the opening night [of “AE&C”] I expected five people to show up,” Abi Khalil says, “but more than 200 came. There was a need, I think, after all this time, to gather around a cultural event, especially one that was outdoors.

“By coming, people felt they were reclaiming that space, just by being there, hanging out near the river and engaging with a woodland that’s growing despite the times of agony we’ve been enduring.

“We were extremely demotivated and depressed, but the community and the artists and the team made us continue with the program. People told us that gathering at the site each day, it gave them something to look forward to.

“I think it was a huge success, both in terms of mobilizing people around an ecology-related theme, and also in the conversations it inspired about how we can support each other.”

Participants in the study portion of AE&C were 200Grs (aka Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem), artists Petra Serhal, Raafat Majzoub, Christian Sleiman, architect Ashraf Hamdan, and Palestine Hosting Society founder Mirna Bamieh, with contributions by social anthropologist Samar Kanafani and urban planner Sarah Lily Yassine.

The event’s exhibition component included six commissions – Nadim Mishlawi’s “Podpoems: Voices of a Forgotten Network”; Franziska Pierwoss’ “Mad3oum - value in a state of economic crisis”; a pair of billboard interventions (Nasri Sayegh’s “Paysages Exquis” and Omar Fakhoury and Christian Zahr’s “Terrace”); and Charbel Samuel Aoun’s site-specific commission “In Search of the Fragile.” AE&C also hosted onsite projections of film and video art from Lebanon and abroad, the former staged in collaboration with Metropolis Cinema.

The commissioned work varied as widely as the artists’ practices.

Pierwoss’ video “Mad3oum,” for instance, documents some of her research into the impact of the country’s economic collapse on its citizens. Shot in August 2021, it draws upon testimony from an array of individuals at different levels of the Lebanese food chain.

A housewife and grandmother describes how she’s adjusted her buying habits now that she’s unable to afford, or find, grocery items she used to take for granted. The owner of a family-run fruit-and-vegetable market remarks on how the country’s most powerful merchants turned from importing high-end commodities to exporting Lebanese agricultural goods. An economics professor and businessman who runs one of a chain of large Beirut supermarkets reflects upon how the country’s subsidies regime was a great idea that grew increasingly dysfunctional.

Mishlawi’s “Podpoems,” on the other hand, are sound works inspired by two ecological features that reflect upon the country’s current condition.

The first sound poem takes Beirut River as its subject, specifically the concrete sluice that stands in for the river during the dry season. Using microphones, hydrophones and electromagnetic sensors, Mishlawi documented how the site sounds. He used the recordings as the basis for a soundscape, upon which Beiruti voices reflect upon the river’s history. Their stories are interspersed among excerpts read from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” another story situated along a river.

Mishlawi’s second work ruminates upon mushrooms, the consumable “fruit” of the diverse underground network of mycelia from which they spring. Referencing human voices from Lebanon’s thawra, the work reflects upon how an act of defiance may be seen as stemming from networks that are as unexpected and unseen as those sustaining the mushroom.

Abi Khalil conceived of TAP as an arts organization without a permanent residence, a feature that, thanks to Lebanon’s current season of crises, has become a more prominent part of its identity.

After the country’s 2019 street demonstrations were suffocated by violence, economic and financial collapse, TAP was working on projects in Brazil. In the fall of 2020, in the wake of the port explosion, TAP partnered with Brazilian institutions to host a residency for Beirut artists whose lives and work had been wrecked by the blast.

The TAP team reassembled in Beirut in late August to stage AE&C, but the roles have since reversed. Abi Khalil speaks to The Daily Star from a village outside Toulouse, where TAP is a participating in a residency hosted by four French arts institutions. It’s part of the NAFAS program, unveiled in March 2021, in which 50 French institutions provide creative breathing space to 100 Lebanese artists and cultural professionals.

“It’s true we don’t have a space,” she says, “but we do have running costs of staff salaries, and for the past two years we failed to find local or international support to make up for the loss of some projects and the postponement of others.

“We did get a very small grant from the Solidarity Fund [administered by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and Culture Resource]. It’s barely enough to cover a quarter of the salary of one staff member, so we had to take some drastic decisions.

“One of them was to register TAP as an official institution in France, which we did last December. This NAFAS residency is our first opportunity to expand our activities in France, in order to be eligible for funding from Europe, particularly France.

“We’re developing a plan for projects to support the artists from Lebanon, but the plans are still unclear. We’re still at the beginning of figuring out a strategy.

“In the meantime we’ve been scaling up the institution from inside. We have a new website launching soon, which took us almost a year to develop. We have finalized the extensive database of art in public spaces, which we’ll reveal with the new website.”

Abi Khalil says she feels lucky to have had so much support from people in Lebanon.

“We’re privileged to have been able to build a family of artists who’ve been really supportive in this transition time,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to hire people for Art Ecology and the Commons, and we had a surprising number of volunteers devote their time to the event. It was beautiful and overwhelming. We really needed support and, despite the circumstances, young people were willing to commute to Sin al-Fil, and help us on the ground.”

For the next weeks, TAP will be busy establishing a toehold in France, trying to develop schemes for collaboration-driven, financially self-sustaining projects.

“It’s a moment for us to focus on the institutionalization of TAP here, creating a French sister association from scratch. Two team members will join me in Nice and Marseilles to work on assembling a new TAP board that’s more strategic for European projects. That’s our plan for the next two years. We’re hoping that in two years things will improve in Lebanon.”

For more information on TAP and ‘Art, Ecology and the Commons’, see: https://temporaryartplatform.com

 

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