Beirut: Bodies in Public

A three-day workshop inviting artists and researchers to think through the interdisciplinary concerns surrounding performance in public space in Beirut

The workshop is announced in Jadaliyya!

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Call for Papers–Beirut: Bodies in Public (9-11 October 2014).

Article by Ella Parry-Davies

Despite the ongoing concerns of researchers, artists and social activists in Beirut regarding the animation of public space, after extensive interviews with actors in the Lebanese art scene, PeepingTom journal was able to print last year an anonymised quotation that asserted: “Art in public spaces doesn’t exist anymore.” The conspicuous absence of public space in Beirut might point towards such a lack of artistic intervention. Meanwhile, however, Dictaphone Group enact site-specific performances all over the city, Rana Jarbou documents graffiti artists’ momentary reimaginings of the city’s walls, and Beirut is animated by events like #JazzDanceDay.

Furthermore, performance can be considered as exceeding the parameters of what might be deemed “artistic” endeavours. It is also a conceptual framework for examining what Jane Rendell has termed “critical spatial practices.” In the tradition of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau—taken up in Beirut by Mona Harb—geographical space is theorised as inherently temporal and social: it exists as an ongoing practice of construction and realisation. In a performative mode, public space is perpetually generated and produced by collaborative social agencies and interaction. As Jean-Luc Moulène insisted at the opening of his exhibition at the Beirut Art Centre last summer: “L’espace, c’est l’activité de l’être, la production de l’être. Donc l’espace commun est toujours à construire.”

In all this, however, the ephemerality—and by extension the precarity—of performative practices ghosts our enquiries. In her responses to recent uprisings in the Middle East, Judith Butler emphasizes the urgency of public interventions in their struggle over urban space, but equally the ineluctable necessity of the “supports”—bodily and material conditions—that enable these interventions to take place. Butler underscores the significance of making bodily requirements—sleeping, eating, and so on—visible in the occupation of public space. A position which reminds us of Nada Senahoui’s installation Haven’t 15 Years of Hiding in the Toilets Been Enough? Does this stress on the corporeal and the material move away from a “performative” reading of public space as a dynamic or a discourse? In the Lebanese context or elsewhere, how might we address this invitation to responsibly rethink performance in public space?

The absence, demise or discrediting of performance in public space suggested by PeepingTom’s provocation is implicated, rather than explicated by these discussions. We invite researchers, artists and other cultural practitioners to respond to this provocation, whether considering it as a lament, a falsehood, an opportunity, or otherwise. Whilst the workshop welcomes contributions dealing with practical and conceptual material generated across the globe, its location in and focus on Beirut takes account of the particular set of critical socio-material conditions informing an ongoing practice of performative acts in contemporary Lebanon.

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