In a nod to the world’s hottest storytelling platform – Pecha Kucha or “show and tell” – Selections has asked a number of artists and designers to talk about a specific project through imagery and an economy of words. The result is a simple yet engaging and visually captivating tale that sheds light upon the work whilst providing insights into the life and personal thoughts of each featured artist and designer. Passion and knowledge all wrapped into one.
Christine Tohme is the founding director of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, established in 1993. Ashkal Alwan is a non-profit organisation that supports contemporary artistic and cultural practices through numerous initiatives. These include the multidisciplinary platform Home Works: A Forum of Cultural Practices, initiated by Tohme in 2001, the latest edition of which opened in October 2019, and Home Workspace Programme, a tuition-free, interdisciplinary study programme founded in 2011. She was the recipient of a Prince Claus Award in 2006, given in recognition of her achievements in supporting local art production and criticism, the 2015 CCS Bard Audrey Irmas Award for Curatorial Excellence and the 2018 UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. Tohme was curator of Sharjah Biennial 13, Tamawuj (2017). She is on the board of Marsa in Beirut, a sexual health centre providing specialised medical services for at-risk youth and marginalised communities.
Introducing Home Works
Ashkal Alwan has been organising Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices since 2001. Prompted by the necessity to produce critical discourses and aesthetic propositions able to tackle broader socio-political developments, Home Works is a multidisciplinary forum taking place across several venues in Beirut inviting artists, writers, scholars and cultural practitioners from the region and beyond to convene and discuss a set of common and urgent questions. To this day, more than seven editions of the forum have been held in the city.
Selecting Home Works Participants
I am often asked about clarifying the process through which we invite participants to Home Works. However, and as a matter of fact, the selection process for each edition of the forum, occurs informally and is rarely, if ever, guided by a defined set of criteria, depending instead on encounters made in the city, through our educational Home Workspace Programme, at regional arts and culture gatherings, in international symposia, and in cafés. The artists, writers, scholars and cultural practitioners we end up inviting are asked to respond to our conceptual framework, not just showcase their latest work. Through Home Works, we always privilege fostering dialogue able to sustain itself and grow outside and beyond the 10-day forum.
Settling for “World-Building” #1
Home Works is a forum that primarily invests itself in broader socio-political concerns, be they related to the rise of right-wing populism, climate catastrophe, crises of migration and heightened borders etc. While conceiving the eighth edition’s conceptual framework, we were struck by the number of alternative structures emanating from the Syrian revolution as well as the Sudanese, Iraqi, and Algerian protests, but also by the nefarious discourses around Syria’s reconstruction being discussed in Beirut and the authoritarian counter-revolutions spreading across the region. We had reached a political and imaginative deadlock, far from the inspirational sparks of 2011. Something was festering and we wished to propose the notion of “world-building”’ as a potential way out.
Settling for “World-Building” #2
What is world-building? In literary theory as well as video game design, the term is used to describe the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. But we felt like expanding the definition of the term and adapting it to political practices we’ve witnessed. For instance, we’ve considered Local Coordination Committees in Daraa or female farmers’ cooperatives in Rojava as practices of world-building, where a collective undertakes a complete transformation of social relations in favour of alternative, emancipatory structures. For this reason, we wanted to conceive a platform through which participants are invited to produce aesthetic and political imaginaries able to denounce and disrupt counter-revolutionary discourses and economies.
Programming Home Works #1
As previously mentioned, the selection process we undertake for each edition of Home Works only begins once we’ve defined the themes and underlying concerns we want to engage with. Having “‘world-building” in mind, we worked alongside artists, curators, writers and scholars, for a period of more than a year to convoke the radical imagination and explore imaginary worlds as forms of knowledge. Through group exhibitions and new artist commissions; music, dance and theatre performances; talks, conversations, panels and readings; film and video screenings; and publications, we wanted to participate in acts of re-enchanting the social relations and “natural” taxonomies that compose our world.
Programming Home Works #2
After engaging in countless Skype sessions, studio visits, private screenings, exhibition views, group readings and curatorial brainstorming meetings, we finally decided on a programme that we felt encompassed most of the concerns we had set out to explore and dig through. It was an arduous, exhilarating process that allowed us to open up to many different practices, contexts and economies of representation, and we felt lucky to be able to engage with a substantial number of generous individuals and institutions throughout. It was also important to think of the relevance of the chosen interventions within the context of Lebanon and their potential reception by local and regional audiences.
Opening Home Works Exhibitions
After endless months of coordinating with a dedicated team of exhibition producers, technicians, designers, architects, editors and administrators, we were finally ready to present the full programme for the eighth edition of Home Works to the public. On October 17, we set out to open more than eight group exhibitions and new artist commissions across different venues in Beirut. The number of people who attended these simultaneous openings was both heart-warming and unexpected, and we later hosted a party open to all at the space as well as the Ballroom Blitz, where Tunisian music producer Deena Abdelwahed delivered a stellar performance. In the meantime, the Lebanese government had agreed on new austerity measures and proposed taxes, and protests soon took over the entirety of the country.
Postponing the Home Works Weekend Programmes
On the morning of October 18, Lebanon was not the same anymore: our silence in the face of the sectarian-clientelist system had finally and, more importantly, indefinitely been broken. All major roads and highways were closed off, and the streets of Beirut were getting increasingly filled with protesters demanding the government’s resignation as well as the dismantlement of those same power structures that had been producing economic and social injustices for decades on end. Though many of the artists and scholars scheduled to present their work as part of Home Works had already reached Beirut airport, we took the decision at Ashkal Alwan to join the protests and indefinitely postpone activities that were planned for that weekend. Thankfully, our guests demonstrated a great deal of solidarity – some of them even showed up to the street protests!
Postponing the Entirety of Home Works
As the days went on, Lebanon’s popular uprisings seemed to gain momentum and reached most towns and cities. On Monday, October 21, we disseminated an announcement on all our social channels stating that all Home Works activities would be indefinitely postponed. We added that “our artistic, intellectual, and organisational energy will be redirected towards the achievement of our hopes and aspirations, the possibility of which is being granted to us by a momentum that should be seized at any cost.” We’d become accustomed to political instabilities inviting themselves to unfold during or right before the forum, but this time felt different. We were ourselves invited to partake in world-building, but this time on the streets of Lebanon.
Rethinking Future Editions of Home Works
Along with several artistic-cultural institutions based across the country, we announced going on an open strike in order to have our teams fully invest themselves in the moment and to connect with colleagues and conceive an ecology of care. There is something very inspiring about witnessing all the initiatives that have sprung as a result of and in tandem with the uprisings, from volunteer-based soup kitchens to discussions led by legal experts on constitutional matters in public squares to meetings organised by cultural workers in which alternative structures are being debated. It invites many of us in the artistic-cultural sector to question the economies of production, circulation and distribution we’ve been partaking in and hopefully draw emancipatory blueprints for the future.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51 PAGES 58 – 61.