CARNET DE VOYAGE – FROM ISTANBUL TO BEIRUT September 2011, by Margarida Mendes

When arriving to Istanbul I was immediately overcome by the city’s endlessly layered soundscapes, its mixture of prayer calls with fun park synth sounds, and its faded golden turquoise glowing light. One can only react with awe to the intensity that this city, which exists on the border of Europe and Asia, has to offer.

In new Constantinople, the mosaics have been replaced by LED lights but the spirit of trade never disappeared. There seems to be no possible sense of inaction, even though people notoriously reserve time for contemplation. Emerging from every corner and alley, a trolley, or small kiosk offers a new product or service of exchange, each more inventive than the last, inciting you to reconsider the intervening spontaneity and direct interaction that humans may have, as well as the hierarchized conditions of labor, which have become formatted by Western subjectification. While in Istanbul, I kept on thinking that the endless amount of electronic material being sold in shops and waiting to be welded into new circuits and causal diagrams, was a metaphor for a socio-cultural state, which at least in this massive metropole, seemed to have the openness to adopt and re-invent itself before new demands, in an endlessly mutating architecture.

Creating a simple circuit that tested the pulse and synchronicity of an audience, the London-based musician Ryan Jordan had an incredible performance in a night of experimental electronic concerts in Peyote Bar, where Atau Tanaka also played. That night, Jordan amplified the flickering intermissions of an enormous strobe light in sonic signals, an act which resulted in a deep syncopated tech-noise like composition of seemingly earth core generated pulsations, overwhelming his audience with his retinal lightning odyssey. (At the time, the ISEA – International Symposium On Electronic Art – was taking place, an event which brought more than 200 researchers and practitioners to the city.)

View of BAS's archive of artists' books collection

 

Walking through Istanbul, in-between enchanting out-of-sync prayer calls and spicy breakfast food, I found a curious art platform called BAS, located on a first floor in Karakoi. This small and inviting space displays an extensive collection of artist publications, mostly of european provenience; working also as a publishing house, they edit their own books and host printed matter based exhibitions. This time they held a show on Masist Gül, a Turkish actor and body builder who played in circa 300 films and had a parallel life as an artist,up until the late 90s, making engravings and illustrations. The exhibition included, among photographs and other documentation on the life of the authors, the incredible series of comic books Pavement Myth – The Life of the Pavement’s Wolf, re-issued by BAS for the occasion.

Inside the Prince's Mosque

 

While visiting many hidden mosques with their huge tapestries and murals, a book kept haunting my thoughts: Laura Marks’ Enfoldment and Infinity. In her book, Marks addresses the fractal potential in both Islamic and new media art, exploring notions of infinity and immersion through these distinct art expressions, which she states, have philosophical similarities at their origin. Analyzing the passage from arabesque to algorithm, Marks develops a Deleuze and Bergson inspired argument, which aims at a comprehension of spatial infinity and seriality. Her folds and thoughts seemed at the time to me deeply embroidered in the abstract quality of the geometric patterns of the city and undulating forms of the calligraphic inscriptions, opening a restful gap for stylized content, which despite being noticeably present, did not over impose itself.

As for the Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) which struggles with the tacit yet incommensurable ghost of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, I shall only say that I admire the promising challenge to curating that it marks, despite the fact that I found it occasionally an excessively formalized approach to politics– particularly in the group sections, where relationships between works tended to be underwhelming. For if many works didn’t appeal me– they seemed to carry the burden of a straightforward judgement, which was seldom geared towards moralism, a fact which I thought Gonzalez-Torres perfectly avoided, given his gift for subtlety– I nevertheless made some precious discoveries. Among them, Füsun Onur’s delicate sculptures, Geta Brătescu’s Vestigii textile collages, Dora Mauer’s Hidden Structures Series, or Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck & Media Farzin’s ongoing series Unstable-Mobile installation, which suggests a parallel narrative between the Iraq’s petrol politics and the invention of Calder’s Mobile.

The rest of my days in Istanbul were paced by refreshments at the old bar Vefa Bozacisi, or Pierre Loti’s cafe overlooking the Golden Horn, and some incredible Turkish music played at Badehane.

Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck & Media Farzin "UNstabile-Mobile"

Arriving in Beirut, I was confronted with a deeply contrasting landscape corroded by the post-war rise of over-priced real estate, which no one can afford, in a land of privatized coastlines, and conflicting notions of public space, all of which make this city a psycho-geographical curiosity. In Lebanese society, people can not rely on the fragile megalomania of the state and need alternate power sources. Consequently, it is natural that the independent cultural spaces fight for ground with increasingly creative fierceness, when faced with the near non-existence of institutions.

The best thing about Lebanon, for me, were the road trips. Lebanese roads, which are as dusty and arid as a  Kiarostami film, led me from the Byblos sea side and the Batroun fish restaurants, to Tripoli’s unfinished exhibition pavilions by Oscar Niemeyer, or the incredible ruins of Hierapolis in Balbecq, sided by a Marienbad-like hotel with Jean Cocteau drawings.

Oscar Niemeyer's International Fair of Tripoli

 

One of these road trips led me to Batroun Projects, an forthcoming space in a villa on the mediterranean coast located between Beirut and Tripoli, which is developing a residency platform for artists, film makers, and scholars. This summer the first activities were an open air film program, of which I attended the screening of The Fantastic Planet (1973), an animated science-fiction film directed by René Laloux, based on the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Batroun Projects also intends to construct a studio for radio and sound recording, which will support artists and musicians, and has the perfect location and team (half of them also London-based) to carry great work in the near future.

Batroun Projects

 

One evening, after some delicious Lebanese food at Le Chef (an old cantin in Beirut), I went to the 98 Weeks project space, founded in 2007 by Mirene and Marwa Arsanios, for a performance evening entitled “Theater of Desire,” an informal encounter where everybody can make a contribution. From Arabic poetry to anecdotal reports, or five minute group meditation, this was an event which had the potential for an unprecedented intimacy among those who attended, faces who all know each other way too well but seldom expose themselves. Theater of Desire was a night with no particular organization or restrictions, but it provided all the elements for an intense moment of communal construction. And it is precisely within these informal parameters that the space 98 Weeks seems to grow, adapting itself to the needs of the context where it acts, and establishing many international collaborations. This research project space hosts mostly an event-based program, from city wide spatial interventions to debates on self-publishing and cultural production, and is, I think, one of the most promising art spaces in Beirut.

98 Weeks

 

Another significant project taking place in Beirut, notoriously the most ambitious one, is the Home Workspace, home of the Ashkal Alwan Lebanese association for plastic arts, which has organized the well known contemporary art festival Home Works (already in its fifth edition). This year, the association established the Annual Home Workspace Program– an independent study program which will host yearly a residency for a small group of 15 participants. The research program is oriented by a Curricular Committee, consisting of members Joana Hadjithomas, Walid Raad, Khalil Rabah, Lina Saneh and Gregory Sholette, and counts already with the presence of speakers such as Alfredo Jaar, Willie Doherty, Hito Steyerl, Cesare Pietroiusti, Hassan Khan, or Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. The Academy is located in an outstanding renovated factory-style building next to Beirut Art Center exhibition space, and will no doubt heighten the impact of Beirut on the international contemporary art map, while already making an incredible stand before the chaotic or almost non-existent cultural infrastructures of the region.

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I would like to thank André Castro and Hisham Awad, without whom this trip would not have been the same.

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