008.01 BEIRUT

INTERVIEW WITH BEIRUT BY SHURUQ HARB

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Outside view of Beirut, spring 2013. Image courtesy of Beirut.

Beirut is one of the latest cultural art spaces to emerge from Cairo city in 2012. For a new initiative it stands out as locally and internationally active with several high profile exhibitions and screenings. At its core, Beirut is questioning what it means to be an institution. Thinking of its constitutional condition as a curatorial act, the initiative is registered (under another name) as a Limited Liability Company in Egypt.

Shuruq: You describe Beirut as “a new art initiative and exhibition space that considers institution-building as a curatorial act.” I hope that through this interview we can explore this statement. To begin with, I’m curious about the immediate conditions in Egypt that your initiative is responding to.

Beirut: Egypt is not a place that yields to demands just because they are made. Language barriers, delayed deliveries, technical difficulties, limited resources, and misunderstandings are part and parcel of the contract you sign with Cairo. Working within this context is a perpetual cycle of frustration, innovation, challenge and imagination. Given that artists and cultural practitioners have no formal recognition, there is a marked absence of active public institutions, such as schools and museums, and there’s a startling lack of public and private support of the arts – not to mention the general economic woes of the state – public access to contemporary art discourse is fraught with difficulty and distance. This demanding environment, however, is one that also opens up innovative ways for us to contribute to art education, work toward public engagement and intervention through art, build capacities in fields that nurture the arts and their encounter with wider publics, through art writing, culture journalism and other fields.

Shuruq: Given this context, how have you been building your institution
“as a curatorial act”?

Beirut: An institution is many things, and curating an institution (for us, at least) means evoking the space that lies between people, questions, artworks and places, making note of every aspect that concerns the institution itself, thinking outside the protocols and definitions of its use. Specific to our mission, or of our intentions, is the desire to imagine and build an able institution in an unstable context, where fluidity and ambiguity are the prevailing characteristics of politics (and, subsequently, our lives).

The mission of “building an art institution as a curatorial act” allows us to develop means of restoring the centrality of art, and the role of artists, in rethinking how the art institution comes into formation, legally, financially, and in its administrative design. Our programs are curated in three seasons per year, each season revolving around inter-related questions, works and programs, allowing us to remain context-responsive to the sentiments surrounding us.

A leitmotif of our program is our investigation of key questions and conditions under which art institutions evolve – “What is an institution?”, our third season’s quandary, is an example of this. Most of our research is conducted through workshops, lectures, seminars, commissioned artworks, texts and exhibitions, heated office debates and late-night balcony conversations. We study contemporary art institutions, and look into their practice, shifting role, function, discourse, language, history and public. How are these institutions received? Who are their audiences? What informs their means of organization, planning, structure, sustenance, development and growth? In this sense, we hope to actively propose new charters for (art) institutions’ becoming.

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Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Ultimate Substance, 2012, video installation, 34 mins. Image courtesy of the artists and Beirut.
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Writing with the other hand is imagining, exhibition view with Luis Camnitzer, This is a poetic statement. Identify the elements that construct the poem, 2011-2013, vinyl and mixed media, background: Parallel Lines, Neither Forever Nor Instant, 2013, two-channel video, 14 min. Image courtesy of the artists and Beirut.

We believe in learning by doing. Instituting Beirut, for us, is about the possibility of validating new beliefs and values. Our engagement with artists, art works, thinkers, ideas, here and in other places, find their way into the ethics of our working structure, our program, and, occasionally, our personal lives.

Beirut’s legal registration is a process that has been undertaken in collaboration with artists Goldin+Senneby. Beirut does not (legally) exist in Egypt. Our checks are signed by and for Goldin+Senneby Limited Liability Company. (Disclaimer: the legally constituted organization is created under the name with no direct involvement from, or connection to, the artists).

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Makeshift institution: A classic Beirut receipt, usually met with confusion and wariness, only signed after extensive coaxing. Image courtesy Beirut.

Shuruq: How is this special legal set up as a “Limited Liability Company” useful to Beirut? What are the practical advantages? Or is it more of a conceptual gesture, and if so, could you elaborate on what this gesture means?

Beirut: Our understanding of curatorial practice builds on clichés and traditions, which manifest themselves in administrative and bureaucratic form, embodied in directly applicable rules, laws, precise statutes, and the contracts of our practice. Altogether, they form the basis on which we engage with and have a stake in (curating) institutions. To have an agency into their future, we need to invent new ways of considering them, of living with and into them, of bringing them to visibility. The aforementioned legal framework we chose to operate through, Goldin+Senneby LLC, is a commissioned artwork in itself. Not only is this an issue when trying to get a receipt off the electrician down the road (“Weren’t you called Beirut? Who are Goldin+Senneby? How do you spell that?”), this complex setup also actively pursues the very simple question: Can an institution be an artwork? If so, can it stumble onto completely different audiences on its way, people we have been excluding thus far, such as funders, service workers, administrative partners, or, eventually, perhaps, the Egyptian government?

The legal-registration-as-curatorial-gesture also draws attention to the status of similar (in mission or in predicament) local institutions. We are all – technically – companies, when, in reality, we operate as not-for-profit and non-governmental entities. The choice of being a Limited Liability Company is one that is compounded by the difficulty and threat that being an NGO in Egypt would present. In a way, underlining our status becomes a means of encrypting part of the legal reality within something that lives on – even if only in fragments of conversations.

Shuruq: What does this mean in an operational sense, in terms of hierarchy within the institution and decision-making? How are you changing the way in which service workers and funders relate and work with the institution?

Beirut: We find out everyday. We are constantly negotiating our structure between hierarchy, titles and tasks, different institutional models, clumsily balancing the fine line that separates an institution that performs itself, both as a character and an author, and an institution that takes on something of “the commons”, one that belongs to anyone who wants to own it. In terms of our own self-organizing, we also somehow live together, in an apartment building adjacent to Beirut, and host artists as part of this somewhat familial-structured arrangement. We obsess over how to formalize this as we grow, we nurture each other’s interests and make light of each other’s quirks, we take charge of different projects, we divide “chores”.

Reality has taught us that we’re all service workers, and we’re all funders. Further distinctions make us uncomfortable.

So long as we are working, open and transparent about our processes, and our books are in order (in terms of our accounts, rather than our modest library), we feel that it’s a worthwhile endeavor to support. Institutions, like people, function in different ways.

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The Falling of the Books, exhibition in collaboration with FormContent, April 2013. Image courtesy of the artists and Beirut.

Shuruq: To name your institution Beirut when you are in Cairo city implies both a sense of displacement and remapping of the historical and cultural relations of these two cities. What is the reasoning behind your name? More importantly how does it reflect your institutional practice?

Beirut: Every single member of the Beirut team is likely to respond to this question differently, as the actual meanings and reasons behind the name are fluid, increasing both in number and complexity as we go along. Some are related to semi-biographical happenings, fortunate and random coincidences, and poetic affiliations. The truth being that our name is constantly appropriated and understood differently depending on intentions and perspectives, usually cited by the public, whether in reviews or general conversations, with an accompanying definition: ‘Beirut art space’, or ‘Beirut foundation’, or ‘Beirut art initiative’ or ‘Beirut collective’ or ‘BeirutBeirut’. We believe we are a little bit of all of this: an institution open to interpretation, depending on the speaking subject, the context, and the reflections informing our work. The ambiguity shrouding the name fosters an open-ended perception of who and what we are; it’s a conscious performance of an institution’s very first act of becoming, of naming.

Shuruq: You launched your third season earlier this year with a seminar dedicated to re-thinking what an institution is or can be, with invited small and mid-scale institutions such as Kunsthalle Lissabon, FormContent in London, the Center for Contemporary Art in Derry~Londonderry, and Art in General in
New York. One of its outcomes was that you founded a network called APRIL.
What are the common values that brought about this alliance? And what kind of activities can we expect from this network in the future?

Beirut: APRIL is a network which is still formulating its mission, its intentions and articulating its scope of practice. It exists out of a shared desire to have a collective megaphone from which we can speak, and contribute to the changing field of how institutions are run. We all share the same concerns about the future of art and its institutions, the autonomy of our practice and the language we use. To each other, it is of great value to be able to voice questions, not only around our programs, but our structures: financial, legal, human. It helps us keep wondering what an institution is, what it means, what it does, and for whom.

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What is an Institution? The First Meeting, inside the exhibition space of The Falling of the Books, April 2013. Image courtesy of Beirut.

Shuruq: Could you elaborate on some tangible ideas, cases or real life examples that emerged from the APRIL group meeting so far?

Beirut: APRIL aims to foster dialogue on questions shared among various institutions. Some are still emerging or currently undergoing transition, many of them embrace constant change as a key institutional ingredient. This dialogue manifests in more tangible forms at times. An example of this is the first ArteZine issue, which appeared on the ArtEast website in July of this year. It consisted of a text and image based collective submission of individual institutional thoughts on the “voice” and “language” we use to think and talk about art institutions today – particularly in relation to questions at the core of our practice: Can an institution evolve using the language and logics of art practice? If social and political imagination is a prerequisite for change, can the realm of art be imagination’s guardian, nurturer and inspirer in a time of economic and political violence? As for future materializations, the conversations continue.

Shuruq: I look forward to see how these future conversations will take shape. On the local level, how have you engaged other local art and cultural institutions in your institutional questioning?

Beirut: We have ongoing informal moderated meetings with different institutions in Cairo, from an array of disciplines, including cinema, architecture and journalism. We tend to discuss collective concerns pertaining to art and cultural institutions in the city – why they are valuable within their specific contexts and, more broadly, questions regarding audience, project(s) longevity and sustainability, and, of course, the never-ending crisis of funding. Alongside this inter-institutional dialogue, we undertake practice-based collaborations with (friendly) individuals and organizations. One example would be our extensive alliance with Mada Masr (Arabic: مدى مصر‎), a Cairo-based platform for independent journalism founded in June 2013 by former journalists of the English-language newspaper, Egypt Independent, following the forced shutdown of its operations in April 2013. We began collaborating in December 2012 on the occasion of our then current exhibition What Does a Drawing Want? and a work by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales which, broadly construed, deals with a collective rewriting of the French Code Civil. We decided to give the work a wider presence beyond the exhibition space since it offered such a timely response to the simultaneous nationwide debate around Egypt’s new constitution and the decisive constitutional referendum held on 15 December. This was the inception of Indent, an ongoing series of artistic interventions in the weekly print issue of
Egypt Independent. Most recently we published the very first print issue of
Mada Masr for the exhibition Unexpected Encounters at Camera Austria in Graz, and another collaboration in November led to a new work by artist
Adelita Husni-Bey.

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Taha Belal, Stripped! News Caught Colorful and Laughing, intervention in Egypt Independent, issued 10 January 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Beirut.
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Cover of Mada Masr The Print, issue 0, published in September 2013.Image courtesy of the artists and Beirut.
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Adelita Husni-Bey, (On) Difficult Terms, 2013, mp3 audio 33 min., series of 15 photographs, B&W digital print and acrylic ink on archive paper, commissioned by Beirut in collaboration with the Cairo-based platform for independent journalism Mada Masr. Image courtesy of the artists and Beirut .

Shuruq: How do you perceive your role in relation to what is institutionally happening in the art scenes in Cairo and more widely in Egypt?

Beirut: As an (art) institution in process, you soon learn that self-organization and grass-roots knowledge production, both individually and collectively, are your backbone. Young organizations in the region have collectively admitted the need to work closely on mutual support and visibility, knowledge exchange, and joining efforts on diversifying publics at this particular moment in time. We trust in inter-dependent institutional collaboration to trigger exchange and form alliances within Cairo, Egypt, the region and beyond. To us, the subject of institutional growth is one akin to the dissemination of knowledge. All around us are opaque institutions where capability and expertise are sometimes accumulated in individuals. Beirut aspires to create a space for institutions to meet, exchange and grow together – regardless of age, scale or capacity. What matters is that we share the same questions and concerns, and a shared demand to articulate and seed institutional standards that we feel are essential to our, locally and internationally, shared work life.

It is part of Beirut’s mission to strengthen infrastructures for commissioning, producing, presenting and supporting ambitious projects and exhibitions locally. In doing so, we encourage co-production and programming that can be shared with other institutions across disciplines, actively engage in conversations around mutual support, and bond with institutions dedicated to fields other than contemporary art. On this level, we are fostering partnerships with, for instance, Cimatheque (alternative film), CLUSTER (architecture & urban research),
Mada Masr (independent journalism). We also collaborate with educational initiatives such as MASS Alexandria, and, naturally, we co-operate with other Cairo-based art institutions like Townhouse Gallery, Contemporary Image Collective and the young, artist-run initiative Nile Sunset Annex.

Beirut wants to exist. She too, wants peace. Of minds, of nations. She wants to create reasons to stay and to incite fantasy. She wants to invent time. Taken out of context, she may seem strange. She struggles, and pays rent. She is yearning learning to become a school for imagination, a haven for knowledge exchange, a political nursery, an artwork.

Published November 27, 2013.