Culture

How to build a future from collapsing Beirut

BEIRUT: It’s not been an extinction event exactly, but the crises of 2020 have been tough on artists and the cultural community generally.

Though its impact is clear, it’s uncertain how artists will channel this watershed of disruption into their work. The public, meanwhile, sees lockdown stories everywhere – whether in movies like Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” or in “Memory Box,” the new feature by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, whose principal action is set in a Montreal household socked in by a blizzard.

Audiences may also read traces of lockdown in “The Sky Oscillates Between Eternity and Its Immediate Consequences,” Nadim Choufi’s digitally animated short.

In October 2020 the Lebanese artist received Art Jameel’s special commission for digital art – the third in a series of yearly project-based grants the Saudi non-profit has disbursed through Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

Cast as part of Art Jameel’s broader response to the pandemic, the theme of the digital art commission wasn’t “illness,” “lockdown,” or “isolation” but “time,” and how technology and circumstances have challenged notions of it.

“The Sky Oscillates” has a futurist, science fiction premise, but it’s less a narrative than a series of tableaux accompanied by voiceover narration and a bit of text.

The opening scene shows the skyline of contemporary Dubai, then shifts to a satellite orbiting a crater-pocked surface, then to a red-tinted desert landscape.

A female voiceover sets the scene in medias res, describing how climate disaster forced human beings to enter settlements lodged within clusters of geodesic domes.

“That’s when we moved life into the first space colonies on Earth,” the female voiceover recounts, “or nearly all of life, whatever kept the colony running.”

Though the pandemic provoked the commission, Choufi said “The Sky Oscillates” is grounded in the science fiction-inflected work he did in 2019, during his time in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace programme. More immediately, the video was inspired by Mars Science City, a complex of geodesic domes being built in the desert outside Dubai.

“A lot of this work is based on renderings [of Mars Science City] released in 2017,” he said via Wattzap. “It’s supposed to mimic Martian conditions. They plan to send a colony to Mars in 2117.”

Subsequent voiceover narration depicts life within these terrestrial “space colonies.” Whether detailing intimate matters or the colonists’ imagined work, the commentary veers into a lyricism that strains against the work’s high-tech fabric.

“Inside the colony,” declares a disembodied female voice, “the closest thing to feeling the sun behind a summer mist is someone else’s breath on you. Even then, you recognise the feeling after the breath is gone.”

Later, another voice describes how “we” fashioned designer tails for microbes (imagine a speaker component, a woofer say, with a wriggling sperm’s tail) that they hoped would help terraform the Earth – that is, make Earth more Earth-like.

“And everyone felt lost when we released them to the outside,” she says. “Nothing could have prepared us for nothing to happen. The outside stayed there and the microbes made especially for us lived [in] their own terms. I think of them coupling and tripling, becoming their own audience.”

The jury that chose Choufi’s proposal included Nadim Samman, digital curator at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Finnish artist Jenna Sutela, and Ben Vickers, publisher and chief technology officer at London’s Serpentine Galleries.

Choufi said the budget Jameel Arts allotted to the project was crucial to realising it. “It gave me the opportunity to work with many more people – Mario Hawat, the co-animator, editor Antony Maalouf, composer Nour Sokhn, sound mixer Ziad Mukarzel and the voice actors. Their different aesthetics and ideas made it a real collaboration.”

Equally important were the contacts Jameel Arts facilitated – among them Vickers and Sutela and Fox Harrell, from the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab).

“Harrell looks at the poetics of computer-generated objects and games, videos, and something he calls ‘phantasms,’” Choufi said, “the building blocks of an identity.

“Sutela works mostly with AI and microbes. We talked about things like ecology, re-wilding – if that’s just an extension of human power or not. What do these space domes really do? Are they just conserving, fossilising life?”

Interspersed among the digitally simulated pans of desert exteriors and dome interiors, stocked with simulacra of plants and animals, are freestanding segments that resemble corporate videos. They often centre on cylindrical containers which – after being dropped or slid (like a mug of beer) into the frame – are filled with coloured liquids, sometimes with a monochrome human figure nearby. Accompanying these scenes are headings like “Optimum Life Cycle,” “Optimum endless energy,” “Optimum extraction rate.”

These interludes seem to illustrate something but as their language hangs meaningless in the frame, it’s tempting to imagine they are elaborate piss-takes of the business of science and technology and the culture of fictive disinterest that’s developed about it.

Choufi said the intention of “The Sky Oscillates” altered over time.

“The original idea was to look at these space domes that are being made in the desert – in the UAE, in the Gobi Desert, in Arizona, in Russia – all in the name of helping find climate solutions. They’re very tight, compact, with harsh conditions inside them, which is what our future’s gonna be like.

“The idea started evolving when you try to fit this planetary solution into in these space domes, a couple of thousand square metres or less.

“Life inside these domes functions not on environmental completeness,” he said, “but on continuing an operating condition of the world. It’s capitalistic operating conditions [based on] extraction from every body.

“Who gets to be in or out of this new life system that you define? How do you select them? Are you gonna select them on the basis of efficiency?”

He paused.

“I decided the script would focus mainly on the bodily experiences of people living in these space domes. This was specifically to disrupt the visuals, which I knew were gonna be slick, maybe game-like, but could easily be used as promotional images for, say, a governmental plan.”

“I can’t help but think that how much of my lover was just shadows at sunset,” a voiceover said, “how the movement of light is most important to realise him, but inside the colony our skies don’t fade. Our sun runs for maximum efficiency.”

Premised on administrative-technological responses to climate crisis, “The Sky Oscillates” was imagined to be of this moment, but there’s more than environmental disaster here.

When not describing self-propelled microbes, isolated voices express loneliness and physical alienation. At one point, a pop tune accompanies a jellyfish-shaped object as it darts purposefully about a bubble, or a petri dish, like a sentient disco ball or a bearded Coronavirus.

You may wonder whether Beirut’s collapse left its marks on Choufi’s work.

“We had to deal with Corona, then with the port explosion. Really I think the project was more about caring for the team,” he chuckled. “The production became something that we were doing but more so it was just talking about how we were feeling and then those feelings ended up going into the film.

“The space domes are highly isolated, highly efficient spaces where you’re just supposed to work. We were kind of experiencing that, with the isolation of Corona. So yeah, all the disasters did feed into this film.

“If this is the future, then what we were feeling at that moment actually translated into how we would react if we actually lived in these spaces.”

Choufi doesn’t feel Beirut’s bipolar year hijacked his project.

“Definitely a lot of things were translated,” he said. “In the Thawra, you know, a hundred solutions and a hundred problems were thrown into the open. That’s really important, but at the end of the day the reason we were going there was for this feeling that you have to be there, not because of peer pressure but, more like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be at this moment.’

“At first I thought the work was gonna be more didactic, about the problems within this techno-scientific Noah’s Arc, where selection and efficiency is what drives the future.

“Then the script changed. ‘No, I’m not gonna define these problems and solutions in a very clear way. Let’s just see what it means to live in that future’ ... This present, really.”

“The Sky Oscillates Between Eternity and Its Immediate Consequences” can be found at this link: https://theskyoscillates.jameelartscentre.org/

 

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