The outcome of a long-lasting, intense exchange between Associação Cultural Videobrasil and curators Akram Zaatari and Christine Tohme, both of whom are leading figures in articulating the new Lebanese electronic art, Possible Narratives is, in a sense, the place where all of this Festival’s curatorial ambitions converge. Spanning nearly ten years, the featured productions reveal a paradigm of consistency and contemporaneity amidst the surprising landscape of electronic art from the geopolitical South – and, in this sense, the show is the ideal complement to the map the Competitive Show tries to outline. Another factor is the very particular way in which these artists use image in order to retrieve the identity and the memory of a country torn apart by almost two decades of religious and political bloodshed, in a bid to at once reveal and transcend the “collective post-traumatic amnesia” described by the essayist Jalal Toufic, one of the names involved in the show. A recurrent feature in the shortlisted artworks, this political use of electronic image and its appropriation, manipulation and superimposition has never been as striking as in the gestures of the artists featured in Possible Narratives.

The show’s formatting process involved the Brazilian poet Waly Salomão and had the decisive collaboration of curator Christine Tohme, whose work as head of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts accounts for much of the recent stimulus to contemporary art production in the country. For Brazilians, this is a unique chance to become acquainted with one of the country’s biggest assets: the intelligence of an art that uses images in order to come to terms with its painful “non-memory.”



Curator's text Akram Zaatari, 09/2003

Beyond Evidences

The appearance of a generation of independent videomakers in Lebanon in the 1990’s is in part due to the development of a new infrastructure to the video production in the nation and to the recent emergence of communication and audiovisual arts departments in Lebanese universities. The phenomenon was also strengthened by the creation of the Ayloul Festival in 1997 and the expansion of Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) to the field of video in 1999.

Two important factors affected this production. Firstly, the lack of any previous film tradition in the nation gave the artists a certain liberty to work with the form, exploring the video not as a substitute for the film, but as a specific medium. Secondly, the domain of the TV conventional narrative language (particularly in the war context) indirectly encouraged the exploration of new narrative forms which go beyond the use of video to show evidences.

Akram Zaatari e Christine Tohme

ASSOCIAÇÃO CULTURAL VIDEOBRASIL, "Deslocamentos - 14º Festival Internacional de Arte Eletrônica Videobrasil": de 22 de setembro de 2003 a 19 de outubro de 2003, p. 100, São Paulo, SP.

Essay Antônio Gonçalves Filho, 2003

In search of a memory (an essay on the Lebanese artists in the 14th International Electronic Art Festival -Videobrasil)

The rapid changes in the world after September 11th obliged artists to work in frenetic urgency. Facing the possibility of a global conflict, of which the invasion of Iraq was a mere sample, a sentiment of terror grew and paranoia took hold, a mixture proven to be explosive. On the other hand, the curiosity of western countries was aroused concerning a country that has for almost half a century been going through constant transformations. Ever since the balance of power between Sunnites, Shiites and Druses was disrupted, Beirut has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Entire families disappeared. The architecture changed so many times that the city today is beyond recognition, like an elderly lady submitted to innumerous and disastrous plastic surgeries. In 1958, after months of civil war, the Lebanese knew that there would no longer be any vanquisher or vanquished. Everyone would be a loser in this mortal game. And so it was until the reestablishment of peace. The segment of the 14th International Electronic Art Festival -Videobrasil sponsored by the Videobrasil Cultural Association and Sesc São Paulo, from Sept. 22 thru Oct. 19, which assembled a number of Lebanese artists, is a register of this story and living proof of the regenerating powers of art. Possible Narratives- Art Practices from Lebanon exhibited six installations, performances, essays on images and lectures by Lebanese visual artists with the objective of salvaging the identity and memory of that country in São Paulo, the most important metropolis in South America and home to the largest Lebanese community outside of Lebanon. Oriented by the concept of the displacements, the festival, the only one of its kind in Brazil and one which has revealed to the Latin public work done by artists such as Bill Viola, Gary Hill, William Kentridge and Nam June Paik, celebrated its twenty year anniversary with a program entirely dedicated to artistic practice in the Southern circuit, “the political dialogue between West and East still seems to be a far way off, but the artistic experience can unite what the world has separated” says Solange Farkas, curator of Videobrasil. The work of the Lebanese artists in Possible Narratives was brought to the public thanks to the interchange between Videobrasil Cultural Association and curators Akram Zaatari, co-founder of The Arab Image Foundation and Christine Tohme, founder of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Plastic Arts Association. The works presented, among which is the video awarded in the Southern Competitive Show "Face A/Face B", by Rabih Mroué, illustrate, in some way, the thesis of the recently deceased Palestine literature professor and critic Edward Said, who created the term “orientalism” to condemn the erroneous vision that westerners have of the East. If westerners created this erroneous image, Said concludes, it was done to better dominate eastern peoples, reducing them to a dangerous stereotype. The videos from the Possible Narratives segment are therefor attempts at reconstructing a self-image and give voice to political anxieties by authors from different generations and distinct ideological orientations. The role performed by Lebanon in the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians helped define certain positions, but overall it cannot be said that the videos reflect partisan postures. The artists maintain a cautious distance from ethnic and religious conflicts. In any case, one should not try to associate the militancy of a few artists with the propositions of groups such as Atlas, dedicated to the reconstitution of the Lebanese image bank, or of the Ashkal Alwan Foundation, which stimulates new productions. There is of course a strong political component in the work of writer and philosopher Jalal Toufic, principally in Ashura, This Blood Spilled in My Veins, a testimony of a veteran tired of war who uses electronic images as a pacifist platform. This video, above all else, is one that arouses compassion. Another video by Toufic was shown in the competitive show of the festival, which awarded, without any distinction of hierarchy, the videos "Cows", by Gabriela Golder from Argentina, "Face A/Face B", by Rabih Mroué from Lebanon, and "The Apocalyptic Man", by Sebastián Díaz Morales from Argentina. Bearing the suggestive title "Saving Face", Toufic's video was produced during the parliamentary campaign three years ago. With a generous dose of humor, the artist goes out onto the streets accompanying a man who tears political campaign posters. With the faces of the candidates disappearing, Toufic mixes the photos in a disquieting collage, evoking Mimmo Rotella, the well-known Italian artist who would patch together advertising posters and confuse their messages. Toufic's position seems to be clear: the faces of the candidates and political parties change, but not the conservative positions of the Muslim and Christian communities. Everything is ephemeral in the politics and landscape of Beirut. Maybe because of this his video prefers to follow the path of deconstruction, in the same manner as philosopher Jacques Derrida. On the other hand intimate Rabih Mroué, in "Face A/Face B", trails the path of reconstruction. Once the memory of the city and its inhabitants has been destroyed, Mroué makes a series of home audio recordings, the only vehicle capable of recuperating the lost visual register. He was only 18 when the conflict between the armed forces of the Phalanges Party (the Kata'ib, with a Christian orientation) and their Israeli allies against the Palestinians broke out in 1975. With the Israeli armed forces entering Lebanon in 1982, and the consequent expulsion of the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine (OLP) from the country, many photographic documents were lost. The artist invests all his efforts to associate the recorded voices of a Russian song to an image lost in time, tragically concluding that all that remained was the story of one solitary narrator: his own. It seems licit for a country with a destroyed memory to look in the West for iconographic references. A disciple of Jalal Toufic, Roy Samaha is one of the artists who abuses of this type of shameful material. There is a certain ingenuity - particularly after Andy Warhol's pop experience - in using Marilyn Monroe in “Several Reasons” as a major symbol of the West, but, suffocated by the hegemonic power of American cinema, Samaha finds revenge by appropriating its myths and totemic images, recycling them to destroy them more completely. In this same line we find the installation of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, "Lasting Images", which like others was commissioned by the Videobrasil Festival. In it the artists salvage an undeveloped super-8 film, which belonged to Khalil's uncle who had been kidnapped and probably did not have the time to send it to the laboratory. In the single-channel installation by Ghassan Salhab, "My Living Body, My Dead Body", the analogical correspondence between word and body is searched for, also Marwan Rechmaoui (in his installation "Beirut Caoutchouc") to transform Beirut into a giant floor map which could be explored as a body would be by visitors to the exhibition. Finally, in “Mapping Sitting” an installation with three video channels and photography by Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, deliberately burned photos of old post cards of Beirut and its inhabitants seem to constitute an easy metaphor for the destruction of this city-state and its citizens. But this incineration holds a deeper meaning, calling the attention of other nations to a Lebanon in which art's memory seems to have been condemned once and for all to the bonfire. Not without reason, the focus of these possible narratives invariably returns to the past. The nostalgia of the duo Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari is just a pale reflection of the immense absence of an image-synthesis that the Lebanese can recognize as their own. They are tired, very tired of having to borrow their memory from others.

*Antonio Gonçalves Filho is journalist and author of the book "A Palavra Náufraga" (Words Shipwreck)

GONÇALVES FILHO, Antônio. "In search of a memory". Camara Austria, number 84, pp.114 e 115, 2003.