BEIRUT: How do you celebrate contemporary art, and the progressive politics that frequently underpins it, when everything - environmental, economical, political - has gone to crap? For the good people at Ashkal Alwan, the way forward is world building.
“Worldbuilding” is the theme driving Home Works 8, the eighth edition of Beirut’s not-infrequently biennial forum on cultural practices. For 10 days, a dozen venues around town will host exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, talks, panel discussions, publication launches and film projections - in short, a great deal of contemporary art in its various facets.
A few days before HW8 opened, Ashkal Alwan founding director Christine Tohme communicated with The Daily Star about the general state of things, and how that influenced programming this year’s forum. The interview was conducted via email.
“The selection process for each edition of Home Works occurs informally and is rarely, if ever, guided by a defined set of criteria,” Tohme wrote, reflecting that Home Works has sought to respond to the pressing concerns of the day and the need to devise “critical discourses and aesthetic propositions” to respond to the MENA region’s “broader socio-political developments.”
“The selection process depends on encounters that were made in the city, at regional arts and culture gatherings, in international symposiums etc. The artists, writers, scholars and cultural practitioners we [invite] are asked to ... respond to our curatorial and conceptual framework, not just showcase their latest work. We’d like to foster and produce dialogue able to sustain itself and grow beyond the 10-day forum.”
The concept note introducing HW8 begins with this sentence: “Following a presumed conclusion of the civil war in Syria, global management consultancies have urged Lebanon and other regional actors to invest in the country’s industrial and urban reconstruction through their private sectors, inviting architecture studios, businesses, tech startups and public policy think tanks to design, bid in and scramble for its people’s futures.”
The paper asked Tohme whether broadly political concerns were directing discussions within contemporary art of this region. Referring back to Home Works’ mission to respond to the pressing concerns of the day, she replied that it was only natural that the works and interventions showcased in the forum addressed issues like the global rise of right-wing authoritarianism, climate catastrophe, postwar reconstruction efforts in Syria and Iraq and migration crises.
“I don’t think there should be a separation between the political and the aesthetic,” she added. “They are both inherently intertwined.”
As in past editions of the forum, participating artists and academics include a range of regional and international figures who will be familiar to anyone knocking around the international art biennial and art fair circuits. Some of these Arab artists (many of them Lebanese) live and work for part, or all, the year in other countries. Does it matter?
“Yes, it definitely matters that an increasing number of artists [and] cultural practitioners from our region are now based in Europe or elsewhere,” Tohme wrote. “This mostly means that present institutions have not been able to provide support structures or offer opportunities or platforms for engagement.
“Austerity measures in the region targeting independent artistic-cultural institutions and a worrying growth in censorship efforts and authoritarian practices are both factors that have led to artists’ decision to relocate and/or seek support elsewhere, as there seems to be no room to engage in creative and critical endeavors. This needs to urgently be addressed and countered.”
The hemorrhage of talent isn’t the only thing that’s changed in this region since HW7 was staged in 2015. “Much has changed, unfortunately for the worse,” she wrote. “We’ve witnessed the closing down of several institutions that served as platforms for critical practices and discourses in the region, mostly due to funding-related difficulties but also a growing hostility on behalf of our governments.
“We’ve also had to accept that most revolutionary endeavors that gave the region a sense of hope in the 2010s have now long been countered, which should push us to imagine alternative strategies for change that are at once ambitious in scope and mindful of past failures. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the theme for this year’s edition of HW is collective worldbuilding and the radical imagination.”
Artists and their fellow travelers in Lebanon and the wider region are facing many difficulties nowadays, economic and otherwise. Tohme said Ashkal Alwan had been operating in an environment of impending crisis for 25 years. Along the way the association learned a few things about sustaining itself in this peculiar context.
“Our present times are no different,” she observed, “however, we know we will eventually have to sit and discuss the future of Ashkal Alwan in its current form and perhaps opt for an alternative structure,” while retaining the association’s top priority - “maintaining the support of artists we work for ... and refusing to compromise the urgency and nature of our work and output.”
Home Works 8 runs at several venues around greater Beirut Oct. 17-27. For programming information, see www.ashkalalwan.org. For free ticketing, see ihjoz.com.