Challenges in archiving living memory

Maasri hopes to make the posters more accessible to a wider audience.

BEIRUT: Tales of private initiatives “going public” are common. These days they usually entail a company, Facebook say, and its “exciting IPO opportunities.”

Zeina Maasri’s “Signs of Conflict” project has also “gone public” recently – albeit not in the same terms and with somewhat less fanfare than Facebook.

“Signs of Conflict” actually began its public life in 2008 as an annotated exhibition of some 300 political posters issued by 30-odd factions during Lebanon’s Civil War.

The show was drawn from a database of 700 posters – the fruit of a research project that Maasri commenced in 2003 – based on a collection she unearthed at the American University of Beirut, where she teaches graphic design.

“I asked myself, ‘To what extent do these posters tell the history of the Civil War as much as they do the history of graphic design?’” Maasri remarked in 2008. “As a form of popular art, they tell you much more about people’s social and political fears and anxieties than the speeches and treaties do.”

The next year, her project re-emerged as “Off The Wall,” a study on the visual culture of Lebanon’s Civil War-era political posters.

Three years on, the collection has, Maasri says, “grown significantly.”

A few weeks ago, she launched the “Signs of Conflict” website, commencing a process that will ultimately divest her of direct stewardship over the collection.

“I always had it in mind to make the collection public,” she says.

After the 2008 exhibition, “I realized that ... this collection really needs to go beyond the work of a single researcher, to become something that can be shared.”

The beneficiaries are of two types.

First is the wider public, for whom, she believes, the collection “is meaningful as an artifact of a muffled collective memory.

“Hassan Daoud wrote a beautiful reflection, [from a more detatched perspective] in ‘Nawafes,’” she says, “upon how these posters were part of his formative years.

“Daoud was among the intellectuals of the left,” she continues, “and these posters emerged from his intellectual and social circle. He ... was part of the discursive community that created them.”

The second public are the scholars, whether those interested in Lebanon’s Civil War or in the artists and designers, “asking questions about the role of designers and artist-activists in times of conflict.”

Maasri’s collection has so thickened that it has taken on the quality of an archive. In creating the website, she has worked to make the posters more readily accessible to a broader audience.

Works can be found via key words linked to Civil War history – the events, dates, places etc. represented in the posters – as well as icons to make access easier for those without knowledge of the conflict.

In this regard, Maasri differentiates between the curated “exhibition” side of the site and its descriptive “archival” functions.

More than elsewhere, perhaps, critically minded artists hereabouts are sensitive to the practices of collection and archiving.

As a researcher of visual culture, Maasri is equally wary. She is as painfully aware of the online archive’s shortcomings as she is of the opportunities it offers.

“In countries that have lived or survived civil war, the state is responsible for such archival projects,” she observes. “The Spaniards have created a beautiful online archive of the posters of the Spanish civil war.”

One of the shortcomings of “Signs of Conflict” as an archive is the collection’s lack of balance. This results from the want of archives for such works and the reluctance of certain parties – particularly those of the “Christian Right” – to share what they have.

Maasri has also been “preoccupied by the idea the digital archive.

“I’m less interested in ... having the actual physical object, the poster [than in having] a digital image of it. My project isn’t about collecting, in the old sense of preserving ... I’m looking at making a collection digitally accessible,” she says.

“That,” she continues, “has its own implications. Who is responsible for this material that [I’ve made] available? What’s my ethical position on those who may work with this material in ways that can be offensive to its publishers?

“For instance, I tried to enter as many ‘martyr posters’ as possible and to provide information by name. So ... even if you’re outside the website and you think there may be posters of relatives who were killed – you can find them by name.

“This could be great. On the other hand, what does it allow others to do with this material?”

She pauses. “I’ve been contacted by a shop here in Ras Beirut,” she recalls. “‘I’d like to use some of these posters,’ the man said, ‘to put them on T-shirts.’

“I can’t do that. These posters are owned by the parties that made them, so I can’t grant you copyright. And I’m against this project.

“You can’t make T-shirts from the posters of martyrs, whose parents are still alive.

“‘But you’re absolutely wrong,’ he replied. ‘This is a really important project because if everybody sees those martyrs, they might stop making wars.’

“Now I don’t know. Should I try to control the archive, to prevent such projects? I decided not to ... to make it the responsibility of anyone who uses [the archive] to do so ethically.”

For Maasri there is also an activist imperative driving the digital archive.

“My colleague Walid Sadek talks about how Lebanon lives in a state of protracted civil war.

“The war hasn’t ended and whatever caused it is still within many people’s consciousness.

“I didn’t want this archive to be dead history, the way archives and museums sometimes are.”

She pauses. “I recall we dismantled the first ‘Signs of Conflict’ exhibition on May 1, 2008. A week later, we were in a state of war.

“Why do we do these projects? It’s not that we’re naive and think that something’s going to change immediately. But I also don’t want these posters to say, ‘This is a past we’re not connected to anymore.’

“So it’s been important to find ways for the posters to relate to the contemporary politics of visual culture ... and to allow, as much as possible, for these links to occur on the website.

“There’s the publication section ... essays I or my students have worked on, in which we’re looking at contemporary production ... doing analysis, documenting what’s happening and sometimes connecting the new production with archived works. Like the leadership transition from father to son, the strategies used to convey the legitimacy of that transition.

“I’m hoping that the site’s [open-access] blog will enable exchange and flows of ideas across time, and enable the archive to become something that’s alive, not a dead thing from the past. I think lots of these ideas still haunt us, though they materialize differently.”

The Signs of Conflict website can be found at Zeina Maasri’s “Off The Wall,” 2009, is published by I.B.Tauris.





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