How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive?

Akram Zaatari, In This House, 2005 (Filmstill)

Questions concerning the unsettled history of Lebanon and the role of art as a form of political resistance are the focus of the third and final part of the series Why Are We Here Now?, with which the Haus der Kulturen der Welt has embarked on a search for historical traces in the region of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

Within the framework of How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive?, taking place on October 6 and 7, the Berlin-based artist Rabih Mroué, who began working with the HKW back in 2002 with IN TRANSIT, participated in document 13, and has directed for the Munich Kammerspiele, questions how history is being written and how forms of alleged truth are produced.

Since its inception, the state of Lebanon has remained in a state of turmoil. Even 100 years after the end of the Ottoman Empire no unanimous vision of history has emerged and society is still divided into sectarian groups. The only stable factor – Rabih Mroue asserts  – is the continuous inter-penetrability of politics and religion. Together with nine Lebanese artists and authors, including the documenta participants Mounira Al Solh, Walid Raad (founder of  The Atlas Group), as well as Akram Zaatari, Mroué illuminates, in a series of “non-academic lectures”, the ongoing eruption of violence in a region that is shaped by a heavy historical legacy to this day.

How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? uses the format of the lecture performance, which was deployed by a new generation of artists after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, in order to unpack history from its emptied propagandistic takeover. With the term “non-academic lecture” Rabih Mroué highlights the format’s origin within an academic context, while simultaneously employing the format in a playful manner as a strategy for independent artistic research in order to question institutional restrictions and the production of truth itself: the art form as political resistance.

In the two-day program, 10 Lebanese artists and authors from different generations present their own reading of Lebanese history. They are all independent artists with no institutional ties and present alternative positions beyond the media or political propaganda. Their lectures increasingly combine the personal and the political, revealing historical narratives with apparently secondary details.

In his keynote lecture Discursive Management of a Paralyzed System: Communitarianism in Lebanon Ahmad Beydoun explores the division of society along communitarian and confessional lines which have shaped Lebanon’s socio-political system for many years. A development that has not led to the strengthening of the state or the defusing of rivalries between the individual groups. What conclusions can be drawn from this today?

In Do I Know You?, Lina Majdalanie examines, on the basis of personal experience, the phenomenon of prosopagnosia – the inability to recognize and memorize faces – with a view to a society whose legacy is interwoven with metaphorical narratives of-of the face itself. With Lebanon’s  declaration of independence in 1943, the country proclaimed as having an “Arab face”. It was only in the post-war period that Lebanon was declared to be an “Arab country”. On what basis do identification, categorization, and recognition strategies emerge?

The ritual of having one’s picture taken in a photo studio has now been replaced by YouTube. The single moment captured in the photo has been supplanted by picture series, body choreographies, and time-based narratives. In Dance and the Vernacular, Akram Zaatari examines YouTube videos from people who film themselves as “scripts” or as a form of dance. They are variants of self-perception, a reaction to dominant images, social codes, and politics.

In Sweet Talk, Walid Raad engages with the texts and ideas of the Lebanese artist, filmmaker, and author Jalal Toufic, who frequently appears to seemingly translate Raad’s own inner monologue into his own words.

In I Want to Be a Party Mounira Al Solh reflects, inspired by Facebook pages for the sale of second-hand items in Lebanon, on the permanent consequences of war and crises for the country’s population. Based on her previous work –a series of paintings and embroideries illustrating personal stories – she recalls how, since the 1940s, members of her family have been repeatedly forced to sell some of their possessions in order to escape the wars in the region.

The sound research for the live audio essay Bird Watching by Lawrence Abu Hamdan takes us to the Saydnaya prison, 25 kilometers north of Damascus. As the capacity of detainees to see anything was highly restricted the prisoners have developed an acute sensitivity to sound. Abu Hamdan reconstructs the events behind the walls through ear-witness interviews. His project is an invitation to enter a border zone of experience.

Rabih Mroué © Spascheit Spanned
In Sand, in the Eyes, Rabih Mroué examines the image politics of Islamist recruiting videos. These videos are characterized by formats and image styles that correspond with popular viewing habits among youth growing up in Europe, while deliberately testing the limits of what one wants to see and stomach. Based on research material comprised of recruiting videos secured by the officers of the German Intelligence Services, Mroué asks not only what these videos reveal about their producers or the videos’ capacity to engage young people for the means of Islamist propaganda, but also questions the politics inherent in dealing with these propaganda videos from the point of view of the state and society.

The lecture performances do not set out to provide answers, but instead to throw new light on the theme of Why Are We Here Now? – The history of the region, the current events, and the legacy of the past 100 years – from different, previously hidden perspectives. How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? stimulates debates between the participating artists and authors who, in conclusion, will come together at a round table in the foyer of the HKW. The public is invited to participate in the discussion.

With: Lawrence Abu Hamdan (artist, currently a scholarship holder of the DAAD artists’ program, Berlin), Hoda Barakat (writer and journalist, Paris), Ahmad Beydoun (historian and sociologist, Lebanese University, Beirut), Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige (filmmakers and artists, Paris/Beirut), nominated for this year’s Marcel-Duchamp Prize which will be awarded on 16/10 in Paris, Lina Majdalanie (performer, theater director,  and author , Berlin), Rabih Mroué (artist,  theater director, and playwright , Berlin), Walid Raad (artist and Professor of Art, The Cooper Union, New York), Mounira Al Solh (artist, Netherlands/Lebanon), and Akram Zaatari (artist, Beirut).

Why Are We Here Now? is part of 100 Years of Now which is supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in accordance with a ruling of the German Bundestag. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt is supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as well as by the Federal Foreign Office.

Rabih Mroué: 
How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive?
6 & 7/10/2017

Mohammad Al Attar:
Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence
21 – 23/09/2017

Adania Shibli: 
After the Wildly Improbable
15 & 16/09/2017

Tickets: 4 to 14 euros
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