‘The collection is safe, the foundation’s ruined’

BEIRUT: “We think the collection is largely unaffected, though the ceiling and one of the walls in the cold storage room collapsed. We think that with the kind of packaging we have, the pieces are largely intact. The glass negatives are very delicate. It will take a week or more to open each of them and and do a full report.

“The main challenge is to see if we can stay in this building. If we stay, we have to renovate. If we renovate, we’ll have to move the collection somewhere for awhile before we can start the work.”

Vartan Avakian assesses the boxes of photos and other objects that comprise the Arab Image Foundation collection. Ordinarily kept in the foundation’s cold storage room – out of commission since the Beirut Port explosion of Aug. 4 – they’re now arrayed atop tables in the former digitization lab. The AC units labor to regulate the August heat.

He gestures to the gaps in the walls where the windows used to be, now covered with double layers of plastic sheeting.

“It’s not only about replacing glass,” Avakian says. “We have to install new frames. It can be done, but normally this isn’t a completely sealed room. The biggest challenge is rebuilding the cold storage room. The collection needs it. It’s expensive.”

The artist is the only member of AIF’s board of directors to be in Lebanon on Aug. 4, which left him responsible for ensuring the foundation’s small team, augmented by volunteers, was able to secure the space after the blast. Situated in a residential building on Gemmayzeh’s Rue Gouraud, AIF is located in one of the areas worse-hit by the port explosion.

He says AIF’s institutional partners and Lebanese and international sponsors will be key to extricating the the foundation from its present crisis.

“We’re speaking with all our funders to see who can help with what. Maybe some will just help with the cold storage room. Others will help rebuild the infrastructure, all the broken computers and such. The first response – wanting to help and engage – is there. We haven’t secured funds yet. Al-Mawred [al-Thaqafy, aka Culture Resource] and [the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture] have extended their Lebanon Solidarity Fund. That’s great.

“We prefer to not reallocate funds because we have programs we wanted to do. We want to see if they can help us get back to normal in additional ways. Another aspect is getting support to win back the time lost. This is another kind of damage.”

The MENA’s most high-profile photographic institution – devoted to archiving the region’s photographic heritage and activating it through research and production – AIF has a contingency plan in place to protect the collection in the event of natural disasters.

“It worked,” Avakian nods, “but we learned things as well.

“If we need to evacuate the collection, the protocol is to move it to Sursock Museum. Sursock has cold storage facilities for their own photo collection and they’re nearby. We were thinking of fire and other hazards, but the port blast was so big it affected Sursock as well, so they needed time to recover and look to see what can be done.

“So we moved some delicate items. Most importantly, we moved our digital files – two NAS [network attached storage] devices and offsite backups. So now we’ve distributed these and some other delicate items. One NAS device is at Sursock. A second is in another space just to keep them apart.

“We could have moved all the collection but that would have been hasty because the cold storage room had collapsed. We were afraid to move things fast and risk doing more damage, especially to the glass plates. We took what needed to be taken. We took our time to make sure we didn’t set off the fire alarm, or cause an electricity problem.

“Sursock has been very cooperative, as are AFAC and Al-Mawred,” Avakian says. “I think we need to work more on this sense of community.”

Since Lebanon’s precipitous economic slump toppled into financial crisis, sporadic country-wide civil disobedience and political inertia, discussions of cooperation among Beirut’s arts institutions have shifted from ideal to necessity.

“Now I think there’s even more urgency,” Avakian nods. “We’ll have to think of ways to exist differently. With the fuel crisis and electricity crisis, it’s important to be in a place where we own our own generators. That’s easier if it’s in cooperation with others, including maybe having shared server rooms, each with their own backups, distributed over two sites for example, so we can share resources and save money that way.”

Lebanon’s waves of economic and political turmoil have been significant factors in pushing its notable rates of emigration. The Beirut Port blast – and its antecedent layers of negligence, incompetence and corruption – will not compel AIF to relocate to a more placid location, Avakian says, because the collection is already decentralized and will become more diffused still.

“Ten years ago we put into work the idea of an open-source online platform that helps people access and interact with the collection on a wider scale.

“There were many reasons for this. One is these kind of dangers,” he nods to the plastic-covered windows. “Let’s call it security problems. There are problems of mobility, for people who can’t travel for financial [or political] reasons. Coronavirus has reminded us of another sort of danger, and of the importance of digital access.”

The AIF archive comprises several donated collections, each of them governed by different contracts between the foundation and their donors – each of whom had to agree to their donation being opened to the public.

“We’re still working on it,” Avakian says. “For two years now we’ve been digitizing new material in a way that shows the photos as objects. We also launched our online platform, which is the beginning of having the entire collection online.

“As it stands, there are 50,000 objects online ... I think we have most of our negatives digitized, aside from pending collections. Certain collections we have accepted but we haven’t yet processed. So, other than the pending collections, I think most has been digitized, but this still leaves a lot.”

AIF’s collection continues to grow. During this interview Avakian notes the association has been in talks with parties holding photo collections from Kurdistan and another collection of images from Lebanon’s queer community in the 1980s.

The foundation’s activities aren’t restricted to hoarding photos from the Arab world. AIF recently agreed to an online preservation and conservation training session with the managers of a Yemeni collection. Yasmin Eid-Sabbagh, current AIF board chair, has led a project to preserve a collection of images from Burj al-Shamali refugee camp. That collection never came to AIF.

The practice of digitizing AIF’s holdings, decentralizing their location, and the policy of making that data openly accessible online, is matched by a move to diffuse the physical archive globally.

“The collection is from the Arab world, so it’s in diaspora already,” Avakian notes. “There’s always been a need for us to have some kind of place in North Africa, in the Gulf, in Sham, other places. This doesn’t mean that the entire foundation has to leave. We can have different existences, sometimes in collaboration with other institutions.

“Having part of the collection in residence in another institution for three years and staging activities around it – documentation, interventions, readings, talks, conversations – enriches it.

“Scientific as it is, the process of documentation is, like all anthropological work, subjective. Everyone brings their own perspective to it. The collection is always contingent on who activates it, who reads it, challenges it, criticizes it.”

For an itemized list of the material damage suffered at the AIF offices, and information on how to support the restoration, see:





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