Other than someone, there was no one, p. 37-39: Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part, 1964. Copyright © for the text and layout of the publication: Ashkan Sepahvand, 2010. HomeWorks V. National Museum, Beirut. All still images have been pulled from their respective films in the form of screen shots for the purpose of this publication. Copyright of the image material remains restricted to the original licensor.

We first met in Beirut in May 2010, during the Home Works V forum, where you presented the participatory project Other than someone there was no one. The latter was the result of a residency period at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, and tackled the National Museum of Beirut as a site and entry portal for ruminations on art, history, monumentality, memory, representation, communication, language, and violence.

Nat: I have seldom encountered a project that appears so simple in its initial format – a guided museum tour – and becomes so terribly complex because it literally manages to cover a range of subjects which are all interrelated. Perhaps you can start by explaining your choice to structure this project around Beirut’s National Museum (mathaf); known not necessarily for its exhibits but more as a landmark standing on the green line, separating East and West Beirut during the civil war.

Ashkan: When museums began to venture out of their originary geography, that is, Europe and North America, their appearance, in the Middle East for example, was usually related to a form of modernization project that was either directly caused by an imperialist intervention or a self-colonizing motivation responding prescriptively to external models of development. The “national museum” in the Middle East, in this sense, manages to retain its mission to shape and inform a collective identity by determining the narrative, scope and material organization of a particular civilization-nation; yet, simultaneously the museum acquires an ethnographic dimension in its encounter with a (metaphorical) foreign language it must somehow translate.

For me, the national museum, whether in Europe or the Middle East, becomes particularly alienating through this process of insisting on meaning. The objects are not only alienated from their use, they are further separated from their materiality via an almost spiritual transubstantiation into instances of a historical imagination of a self or of others. This is further mediated by the inscription of a specific, loaded narrative onto these objects, as if they were props to a theatre set. The narrative guides the objects in the museum towards a configuration, physically as well as imaginatively, while also framing our own seemingly “timeless” (or, rather “out of time”) encounter with such things.

The first time I went to the National Museum in Beirut, what struck me was that the amount of text about the objects and historical periods was quite minimal. I mean, compared to the Louvre or the British Museum where one is practically reading an essay of wall texts and object labels, it felt almost as if there were no direct attempts to textually articulate the museum’s narrative. In this sense, I began to think of the different, subjective associations and stories that could emerge out of a juxtaposition of objects scattered throughout the display, perhaps an alternative narrative that doesn’t focus on the hard facts of archaeology or the construction of a single history, but rather brings in the affective and hypothetical, the contradictory and discordant.

As I delved into the subject further, I also came to understand where the mathaf was geographically and discursively positioned. I recognized that it bore a particularly troubled relationship with mediating a sense of “historical continuity” in the Lebanese post-colonial experience, how the museum was time and again almost destroyed and how it was given an alternative use-value during the events of 1975-91 in Lebanon. Finally, I saw that its recent restoration bore a particular motivation stemming from the museum’s bureaucratic structure. Its selection of historical periods on view seemed to emphasize a partial history: Lebanon’s Classical, Roman and Byzantine past. I was attracted by the “failure” of a museum in general. Specifically at Beirut’s National Museum, I wanted to use the ruptures and transformative potentials of the place to enact a writing experiment, one that would start with a conversation between me and different people. I saw this experiment as an invitation to start telling a story together and consequently never finish it, never conclude upon a single version, but rather let the discord inherent in any negotiation take over and allow multiple histories to simultaneously exist.

Other than someone, there was no one. HomeWorks V. National Museum, Beirut, 2010. Photo credit: Nat Muller

Nat: Can you talk a bit about your research, did you come across any references that proved to be particularly inspiring and instrumental to your approach?

Ashkan: One particular book that I referred to extensively for the project at the National Museum, and which I find myself turning to again and again in other works, is by an art historian named George Kubler, titled The Shape of Time, and first published in 1962. Kubler expands the definition of art to all man-made things. The history of art must accommodate all these things, for “if we see the desireableness of things as our point of departure, then objects are seen as things we value more of less dearly.”

Things fill time with variable shapes that establish a system of formal communication, in which things communicate as units of form and meaning (though not always hand-in-hand, form can change without meaning changing and vice-versa). To this, Kubler introduces what for me is the most important methodological aspect of his work, the notion of the “problem”. He writes, “every man-made thing arises from a problem as a purposeful solution”. Starting from the “solution” embodied by an object, useful or useless, one can work backwards towards a greater problem which initiated the proliferation of things as a response to it.

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Aleph” was also influential. In fact, one of the reasons why I initially decided to use the National Museum as a site to explore all these concerns was because I discovered that Borges had made extensive use of the Lebanese historian Philip Khouri Hitti’s 1937 encyclopaedic “History of the Arabs”. 1937 was the same year that saw the completion of the National Museum in Beirut and Hitti had been part of a research committee of academics and archaeologists who had researched, assembled and catalogued the archaeological findings from the German and French excavations at Beirut, Tyre and Sidon to form the backbone of the Museum’s collection. Borges, whose fiction employs “Oriental” themes quite often, referred to Hitti’s work as a historical sourcebook for curious, marginal phenomena from the Middle East.” “The Aleph” is the story of an unnamed narrator’s visit to his recently deceased friend’s first cousin. Over a series of meetings, a tenuous friendship develops between the two. One day, the narrator is invited to witness a magnificent thing in his friend’s cellar, “the aleph” – “one of the points in space that contain all points.” This led me to expand upon Kubler’s model of the “problem” and to approach, through Borges, the reconstruction a cross-section of time as a leap of imagination. If we look at objects in a museum as “optical instruments” which shape our view of them in-time (when they are in use) as well as out-of-time (when they have fallen from use, for example in a display setting), then perhaps this affected vision can help us imaginatively renegotiate what we may have unwillingly forgotten.

Nat: How would you describe the process through which you incorporated this research? How did the artistic process untangle (or get tangled in) the museum’s complex configurations?

Ashkan: My work process consisted mainly of conversations and an everyday openness to inspirational directions that presented themselves, whether caused by an interaction with a person, place or thing. It started with simply going to the National Museum. First with friends and quite informally, we’d go and walk around the place, look at objects, and talk about them. I encountered a different experience each and every time, as well as a diverse set of opinions about the objects I felt I wanted to work on and think about more. I began to tape-record these conversations to develop a small archive of the various narratives. I realized that this dialogic aspect of visiting the museum was an important characteristic of the experience and that I had to approach “conversation” on a more formal level. As a guided tour is perhaps the only format in which talking and asking questions is an essential characteristic, I thought it would be interesting to enter into a dialogue with a tour guide – who has an official, scripted version of the narrative to be told – and myself, who approached the objects with no real archaeological knowledge, but rather senses for the problems they posed.

Rana Andari from the National Museum’s Conservation Department directed me to a “super-tour guide” named Antonia Kanaan. I met Antonia and for the months leading up to the project, we talked about her own work in relation to the ideas I was having. I accompanied Antonia on a couple of her tours to get a sense of her style and approach. In retrospect, I think we met too often, we over-prepared, which stifled our conversational ability as things felt somehow repeated rather than fluid and subject to change. Antonia was only able to make it to the first session. She recommended me a substitute guide named Nour Haddad. I had never met Nour. She knew next to nothing about the project when we met on the day of the second session. This was an amazing experience, as Nour and I were literally getting to know one another with the entire group, a real-time process of unfolding conversation and negotiating positions.

Simultaneously, I contacted a Lebanese theatre group named Zoukak. I was aware that Zoukak in previous years, alongside their experimental theatre practice, had engaged in numerous “drama therapy” workshops in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I met Zoukak and worked with three members of the group, Junaid Sariedeen and Omar and Lamia Abi Azar. We started by going to the museum together and then met every week for long discussions where no concrete material was really decided upon; rather our ideas and research were put into productive, critical questioning.

Other than someone, there was no one. HomeWorks V. National Museum, Beirut, 2010.

Nat: Were there any obstacles and surprises while developing the work?

Ashkan: Obstacles were inherent, of course. One was the National Museum itself – the Curatorial Department was quite resistant to the project. They stressed my lack of credentials as an archaeologist and insisted that I not work with any scientific material about the objects I wanted to address, as I would be prone to misunderstanding them. The Museum also was not willing, initially, to allow more than one session, though that changed. In the last minute, I received permission (literally by begging) to use the Museum’s back yard (normally restricted) as one of the settings for the dialogue-tours. They also informed me a few days before the third and final session of the presentation that the Museum would be closed as it was a national holiday, forcing me to adapt by having the session outside of the Museum, on the steps and in the immediate neighbourhood around, which was challenging as no “objects” other than the Museum building itself was present to anchor the conversation.

Nat: The project is inherently participatory: it is a dialogue-tour of the National Museum of Beirut wherein you, certified guides and the audience partake in. As such the narrative – or text if you like – unfolds in real time and is always different depending on who is present as an actor. How do notions of an unfolding narrativity, and mutability more generally feature in your work as a writer?

Ashkan: As a writing project, I wanted to primarily question how a story is told, where it takes place, who narrates it and how all this changes over time. In this sense, the project engaged many meta-writing phenomena, incorporating the process behind writing as such. For me, this process is and has always been contingent on conversation. What written language does is freeze speech into a moment of time; the amazing thing about the spoken word is that it is constantly subject to change, through pronunciation, interpretation and application. Spoken language is fluid and full of ambiguities when compared to written language. For “Other than someone, there was no one”, I wanted to formally experiment with the conversation as an experience that allows for writing to take place.

The publication accompanying the presentations in the Museum was written as a meta-script of all the conversations I had had over the course of my research. To write the “narrative” for “Other than someone, there was no one”, I consulted all of these pieces of conversation, extracted and edited them, and tried to level out the language into a single register that presented a variety of directions in a dialogue between two people, the author and “N”. “N” is an archetypal figure for me, one who embodies a partner, a close and personal connection, someone who engages and questions and shares this intimate experience. The story concretized aspects of my research leading up to the project, providing a skeleton for the dialogue-tours in the Museum to take place. However, I also see the story as an unfinished piece, consciously avoiding a “resolution” to “N” and the author’s fragmentary musings. I wanted the Museum visitor to take this as an invitation to renew the conversation in some near or distant future.

Download Other than someone, there was no one. Copyright ©
for the text and layout of the publication: Ashkan Sepahvand, 2010.
HomeWorks V. National Museum, Beirut.

Nat: Following up on my previous question, it is clear that your project delves into institutional issues on various different levels. Can you elaborate on that? And how then does the institutional site-specificity of the project (the National Museum of/in Beirut) dialogue with project’s institutional embedment in Home Works V, an international art event seeped in international(ist) art discourse and frequented overwhelmingly this year by internationals rather than locals?

Ashkan: I don’t think my interest was particularly related to the “institutional site-specificity” of the National Museum, nor did I program into the project an “institutional critique” that would take the Museum or Home Works explicitly into account. This is perhaps an inevitable association given the place and time of the project’s happening.

There are, however, a few points your question raises that I’d like to discuss. On the one hand, my main interest was in the narrative proposed by a museum. Indeed, once institutional configurations enter the picture, an “authoritative” or “official” narrative is composed that pushes alternative histories to the side, as either apocryphal, hearsay or biased. In the case of an archaeological museum, this streamlined narrative somehow stifles our ability to re-imagine the object anew. With this in mind, I wanted to see how one can “re-activate” objects that have fallen out of time, out of use and out of physical interaction. It seemed that they could be re-appropriated as orientation markers in a narrative that tried to imagine how these objects give a powerful, affective sense to the space of the museum, how they challenge visitors with questions that go beyond their specified date and time and how they, through virtue of having been found, always bear the potential, as we do, of disappearing.

A museum for me is a temporary, useless space, a waiting room, one of those in-between zones where one is not sure whether something has happened or something is yet to come. I don’t know why we collect “valuable objects” from antiquity and keep them confined in such a manner. For me, history is more of an intuitive, adaptable process that attaches itself to objects, people and places in different ways, always mediated by motivation and power games. I think a history is only possible if its material is allowed to go through time and transform, freed from the hands of those who intend to direct it towards their own ends. That’s why I felt incredibly attracted to the National Museum in Beirut: as a friend once told me, this is a “museum struggling against turning [again] into a ruin”. The Museum closed during the Civil Wars. This closure tangibly affected the objects in the collection and is still perceptible today: statues and sarcophagi bear bullet marks and scratches, an entire display case shows small objects that have materially transformed as the result of an explosion in the museum. Glass has melted, fusing two objects together; metal has twisted or undergone oxidization, transforming its colour and shape; residue from the explosion has collected on burnt and blackened matter to form crystals, adding a new dimension to the original figure. For me, these objects, though witnesses to real violence and human tragedy, have been re-created as new objects. Destruction has, in a perverse way, given them another life, as if some spirit from a departing body had entered one of these twisted figurines and given it a palpable soul.

Nat: At a certain point in the tour you mention that “many objects [in the National Museum] are influenced by the practices of strangers [hailing from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, ..]”. Obviously this begs a reconceptualisation of what the “national” means, but I am more interested in viewing this topic in the light of your artist-in-residency in Beirut, where you too somehow become a stranger-of-influence. Can you talk about what this position means?

Ashkan: There’s a concept in ancient Greek literature called “xenia”, the root of which gives us the word “xenophobia”. “Xenia” means stranger-friendship. At its very basis, Xenia is a complex contractual agreement between two people who do not know each other. The rules of the contract stipulate that though one may be a stranger, one is entitled to hospitality. One must, however, respect this hospitality and show due appreciation in some minimal capacity. If the contract is broken, due action needs to be taken to bring either side of the party to justice. This was the cause of the Trojan War: Paris was a stranger-friend in Troy and when he kidnapped Helen to Greece, he broke the stranger-friendship contract, allowing just cause for Troy to declare war.

This is a concept that has shaped my travels and especially my residency in Beirut, where I simultaneously felt familiar and unfamiliar during the time I lived there. My experience of Beirut was that the terms of a stranger-friendship contract are limited and short-sighted; contracts, literally as well as metaphorically, are always being underwritten. The intensity of hospitality is paired with that same intensity of disinterest. At a certain point, I felt very secluded; at other points, completely accepted and thought of as one in the family. But I also think this isn’t anything particularly special to Beirut – it can happen anywhere. It’s more the velocity of all these changes that strikes me as special to the experience of being a stranger-friend there.

I think in the end, it’s a process of allowing places to shape you, giving yourself to them wholly, and knowing that in the end, you collect and take wherever you go with you. I feel myself completely scattered and without a home these days…I am Iranian-born, American-raised, living as a “highly skilled migrant” in Europe for the past five years, travelling often and spending long periods of time in the Middle East. Where am I going? Where do I come from? Isn’t this somehow the most difficult question to answer? For me, Beirut is a place well-suited to these personal questions and the anxieties I sense in my comings and goings. It is a place that exists vis-à-vis continual activity and movement, the arrivals and departures of stranger-friends, and an incredible ability to re-appropriate everything it takes in, creating variations, shifting shapes and renewing contracts without necessarily having fulfilled them.

Published January 24, 2011.