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


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i see what we see

Today on the Corniche, we invite you to be part of a growing archive of interventions in multiple cities initiated by Tracing the Pathway collective. Download the audio file below to listen to instructions, and pick up a walking menu from the Naked Wagon.

Click through to download.

If art in public spaces does not exist any more then where is the public sited in performance? What does it mean to perform public?

In our age of overwhelming connectedness our understanding of what is public is radically shifting. We broadcast from our homes, and seek privacy in crowded streets, but still the performing body remains hidden from public consciousness. i see what we see is a corporeal intervention to amplify the visibility of a performing body, your body, in the cityscape of Beirut.

Sited on the Naked Wagon, at the Cornice, you will be invited to respond to an Audio Guide and menu object which will provoke you to produce your own performative encounter in the Corniche area. Engendering participants-as-performers the menu is designed to act as a framework for your walk, holistically engaging you in how your bodily experience might be manifested in and for the eyes of another, prompting a personal public reflection on the socio-cultural conditions of the performing body.

Participants are encouraged to walk alone with a digital device for recording your journey; an act of solitude on public mass. After your walk you are invited to upload any record you have made to the archive website. In an act of collective posthuman cartography the documentation will create an online, public, organic installation that will re-site participants’ experiences of their performing body in Beirut.

The archive will grow and develop as i see what we see migrates to new territories and terrains to create a perspicacity of multiple pathways for bodies to encounter public places.

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Looking forward to look backwards

Whilst preparing for the workshop, which starts in only two weeks (!), we’ve also been thinking through ways to look back on our experience after the event, and to reflect on the perspectives and discussions we’ll share. King’s College London have invited co-convenor Ella Parry-Davies, and artist-in-residence Dima Mabsout to hold a panel discussion as part of the King’s Arts and Humanities research festival on October 24th. Joined by Dr Craig Larkin, an expert on Lebanese politics and author of Memory and Conflict in Lebanon (2012), we’ll have a chance to look back at our experiences in Beirut, tying them into wider discussions about the themes at the heart of the project.

The event is free and open to the public. Full details can be found here.

Beirut: Bodies in Public | Film screening and public talk

Beirut is a city of divisions, contradictions, surprises. Of high heels, roaring motorways, air conditioned shopping malls, fierce conflicts and unexpected solidarities, rampant privatization and poignant tradition. Neighbourhoods change quickly from penthouses to tin roofs, and streets are slung with cables channelling stolen electricity. On its beaches, its underpasses, its building sites, how do Beirutis perform their city?

Last year, in its special edition on Beirut, the art journal PeepingTom published an anonymised quotation: “Art in public spaces doesn’t exist anymore”. In October 2014, an international group of artists, architects, researchers, performers and film-makers will respond to that provocation during a three-day workshop in and around the city. Whether considering the statement as a lament, a falsehood, an opportunity, or otherwise, the workshop will look to the position of art in Beirut’s precarious public spaces, and the implications of its suggested demise.

Hot on the heels of the event, this panel discussion will be illustrated by film and documentation from the workshop, tying our interventions into an exploration of Beirut’s public spaces, urban narratives and memoryscapes. How is the city transfigured by its inhabitants and their histories, cultures and identities? In what ways might art respond critically to Beirut’s conflicts and inequalities – and from what platform can it speak back to power?

Speakers:

Dima Mabsout is the artist-in-residence at Beirut: Bodies in Public, where she will be leading the Naked Wagon project. The Wagon will form a mobile hub for discussion and encounter throughout the workshop, and the project artists will create a performative response to the workshop during the three days. Dima has recently completed her BA in Fine Arts (2014) at Central Saint Martins London, during which she conceived the Naked Wagon. The first model was built in Glasgow, another in London, which she involved in community interventions, and intermittently did the same in Lebanon. Her practice ranges over a variety of media, with a focus on socially engaged initiatives which she is currently pursuing in Lebanon. Her ideas advocate the power in art for reshaping everyday realities, and her work strives to bridge gaps between local, refugee, and international communities by constructing public and private environments for creative discourse.

Craig Larkin is a lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London. He is the deputy Director of the Centre for Study of Divided Societies and co-head of the Lebanon and Syria Research Group at King’s. His first monograph, Memory and Conflict in Lebanon: Remembering and Forgetting the Past was published by Routledge in January 2012. This research emerged from four years spent in the Middle East (2001-2004), studying Arabic at Damascus University while also assisting in community development projects in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. He is currently working on a co-edited book, The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant, to be published by Hurst and Oxford University Press in April 2015.

Ella Parry-Davies is co-convenor of the three-day workshop Beirut: Bodies in Public, and a PhD candidate funded by a doctoral partnership between King’s College London and the National University of Singapore. She is also co-convenor of Research with Reach, a training programme to support emerging academics in thinking though the scope of their work beyond academia. Her interdisciplinary research brings together performance studies and cognitive philosophy to develop new ways of understanding the relationship between memory and place, and looks towards a theory of memory as performed within a contested public sphere. Ella is currently writing about memory and public space in Lebanon. 


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Thinking through our call for papers

The call for papers forms the backbone of the discussions we hope to generate during the workshop – it is the thematic glue which pulls together our perspectives. Throughout all the contributions – performances, installations, films, research papers and others – offered by such a great diversity of participants, the call for papers will provide the common ground for our research enquiries, and the questions to which we will all be speaking.

These enquiries are grounded in the particularities of Beirut – but they invite interdisciplinary and international responses. Participants will share perspectives from 16 different countries around the world, and our disciplinary backgrounds range from theatre, dance and fine art, to architecture and urban planning. We will combine theory with practice, and shades in between.

The call for papers opens with a statement from PeepingTom journal’s 2013 edition on Beirut – ‘Art in public spaces doesn’t exist anymore’. In compiling their edition, PeepingTom approached a number of artists and cultural practitioners in Lebanon, and collected quotations, which were anonymised, taken out of context and published in thematic blocs in the journal. This was one of them. It offers a powerful provocation to kickstart discussion, but as we suggest, participants might choose to consider that statement as a ‘lament, a falsehood, an opportunity, or otherwise’.  PeepingTom were themselves rebuked for their methodology, and we hope to address the provocation from a reflexive standpoint, collectively formulating  our own approach to the position of performance in Beirut’s public zones.

The call for papers also points to a shift in critical thinking around urban public space, moving from the post-May ’68 tradition, to contemporary reactions to recent unrest in the Middle East and beyond. We draw on the work of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, for whom the city transcended its material qualities, becoming a performance that existed in time and could be created and constructed ‘on the fly’. But we also look to Judith Butler, who responded to the uprisings in the Middle East, and movements like Occupy, with a call to attend once again to the ‘supports’ that enable public protest to take place at all. What conditions, material and bodily, do we first need in order to lay claim to the city as public? And, in the face of ‘disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment’, how can we rethink our strategies for the contemporary cityscape?

In this climate, does performance or spatial practice constitute the utopic response to the corporatisation and surveillance of public space that it did after May ’68? As a process achieved by bodies acting in time, performance is also ephemeral, and therefore precarious. Perhaps we need new paradigms in our struggle to reforge solidarity and to reclaim our public sites. As much as an enquiry into Beirut, then, the workshop represents an international enquiry into performance itself, its promises and potentials.


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The workshop is announced in Jadaliyya!

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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Beirut: Bodies in Public was a three-day workshop inviting artists and researchers to think through the interdisciplinary concerns surrounding performance in public space in the city. It was free to attend, and open to all.

It incorporated research papers, discussions, performances, exhibited works and live interventions in and around open spaces in the city, as a means of enquiry and debate into the role of embodied practices in Beirut’s precarious public sites. Our seed-funded artist-in-residence project, Naked Wagon, functioned as a mobile hub for discussion and encounter, and the artists produced an original live performance in response to the conference experience, performed on the Corniche waterfront on the final day.

You can watch documentation of the event below, and follow our Facebook page for ongoing updates about the issues at hand, and more images from the workshop.

This website is no longer being updated, but hosts blog posts created in the run-up to the event, a full programme and list of participants.

Workshop dates: 9th – 11th October 2014

Location: American University of Beirut (Beirut, Lebanon), and other locations in and around the city.

The workshop took place in association with Performance Philosophy, an international, independent research network. It was supported by King’s College London and by the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS), the Department of Fine Arts and Art History (FAAH), the Arts and Humanities Initiative (AHI), the Department of Architecture and Design and the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (FEA) at the American University of Beirut.

The workshop was made possible by the generous support of Prof Cornelia Krafft (AUB, FAAH) and Prof Mona Harb (AUB, Dept. Architecture and Design).