Why Are We Here Now?

Georges Henein / Photograph by Boula Henein | Courtesy: Farhi Estate, Paris and the artist.

Three Weekends with Adania Shibli, Mohammad Al Attar, Rabih Mroué

How can the past be inscribed into the present not as a relict, but as lived experience in the “here and now”? In Why Are We Here Now? three artists – Adania Shibli, Mohammad Al Attar and Rabih Mroué – will take three weekends to investigate key discourses that have underlined political, social, and cultural transformations over the past century in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. They deliberately avoid grand narratives like progress, civilization or orientalism. Instead of generating knowledge about an irrevocable truth, they invoke new perspectives, seemingly minor details, undetected connections, and narratives not yet explored.

The artists, under the artistic direction of Katrin Klingan, have each organized one weekend with international guests from the arts and sciences for a three-part series of lectures, discussions, and performances. In After the Wildly Improbable (Fri, Sept 15 & Sat, Sept 16), writer and cultural scientist Adania Shibli follows the traces of the Ottoman railway network to disclose its potentialities as a witness to major shifts in the twentieth century. Motivated by a desire not to yield to a language of loss, in his performance Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence (Thu, Sept 21 to Sat, Sept 23), playwright Mohammad Al Attar asks how it is possible to reconstruct Aleppo based on people’s testimonies about their beloved places in the city. With a series of “non-academic lectures” entitled How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? (Fri, Oct 6 & Sat, Oct 7), artist Rabih Mroué endeavors to find out how art can establish new forms to speak about the complexity of history.

Using an unusual change of perspective, Adania Shibli (based in Berlin and Palestine), throws new light on the historical, political, social and cultural realities within and beyond the once Ottoman-ruled territories. Around the year 1900, a railway line was planned to connect Berlin and Baghdad and another to connect Damascus and Mecca. With the aid of the German Empire and its banks, the Ottoman Empire embarked on two large-scale projects that would remain unfinished as a result of the First World War: a railway network meant to connect Berlin with Baghdad, and a second, the Hijaz Railway, linking Damascus with Mecca and running lines to Jerusalem and Alexandria. What would a railway say, if it were to speak, about our journey through the century to the here and now? After the Wildly Improbable gives the rails a voice.

In performances, presentations, films and talks, visual artists, writers, sociologists, anthropologist and thinkers act as mediators who will assist the railway to speak from its own perspective of no more than twenty-five centimeters above the ground. “Wildly improbable, not to say fantastic,” the words used around 1900 by the British consul in Damascus to describe the proposition of the Hijaz railway, lend this collective essay its title. Adania Shibli has collaborated with HKW since first participating in the 2011 Meeting Points festival. In 2013 she curated the symposium A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said.

After the Wildly Improbable with Adel Abidin (artist, Helsinki/Amman), Yazid Anani (curator and artist, director of the public program at the A.M. Qattan Foundation, Ramallah), Sinan Antoon (writer, New York) & Priya Basil (writer, Berlin), Boris Buden (writer, cultural critic and translator, Berlin), Zeynep Çelik (professor of architecture, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, New Jersey), Gülnur Ekşi (plant taxonomist and botanical artist, Ankara), Fehras Publishing Practices (publishing house and artist collective, Berlin), Violet Grigoryan (poet and essayist, Yerevan), Hamid Ismailov (writer and journalist, London), Karrabing Film Collective (arts and film group, Nightcliff, Northern Territory), Sair Sinan Kestelli (sound artist, Istanbul), Shahram Khosravi (professor of anthropology, Stockholm University), Samuel Merrill (scholar, Department of Sociology, Umeå University) Morad Montazami (research curator, Tate Modern, London), Musa paradisiaca (artistic duo, Lisbon), Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani (artist duo, Karachi), Muhannad Shono (artist, Saudi Arabia), Rania Stephan (filmmaker, Paris), Salim Tamari (sociologist and historian, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Palestine Studies, Ramallah).

The Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar came to Germany for the first time in 2011 on the invitation of HKW and was a guest here in 2013 with A Journey of Ideas Across and in 2014 in the series Narrating War. Between September 21 and 23, he will present his performance Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence. For his portrayal of the Syrian city, Al Attar asked inhabitants of Aleppo about places that were dear to them. Driven by the desire to not yield to a language of loss, the result is a set of small, intimate, one-on-one performances comprised of tales and testimonies able to maintain connections to these places. The stories encourage the listeners to piece together images on their own by giving them the freedom to reconstruct places that may no longer exist. In collaboration with the Syrian theater director Omar Abusaada and the scenographer Bissane al Charif, Al Attar develops a reflection on language as such; the need to speak and to listen.

The final weekend of the series (October 6 and 7) is conceived  by Rabih Mroué (based in Berlin and Beirut) who began collaborating with HKW as early as 2002 with IN TRANSIT, took part in documenta 13 and is theater director at Münchner Kammerspiele. Together with nine artists and writers from Lebanon, he will explore the complex past and present of the country in a series of “non-academic lectures.” In Lebanon, a country subject to upheaval since its inception, only one thing has remained stable: the continuous inter-penetrability of politics and religion, Rabih Mroué asserts. How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? employs the widespread lecture performance format developed after the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990 by a new generation of artists who felt the need to unpack history beyond its emptied propagandistic and political takeover. By using the term “non-academic lectures,” the program highlights its origins in an academic context, yet deploys the format as a strategy of independent artistic research to question the very authority of institutional restrictions and to investigate the fabrication of truth: the art form as political resistance.

How Close Could We Get to the Light and Survive? With Lawrence Abu Hamdan (artist, currently fellow DAAD Berlin artists’ program), Hoda Barakat (novelist and journalist, Paris), Ahmad Beydoun (historian and sociologist, Lebanese University, Beirut), Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige (filmmakers and artists, Paris/Beirut), Lina Majdalanie (performer, theater director and author, Berlin), Rabih Mroué (theater director, actor, visual artist and playwright, Berlin), Walid Raad (artist and professor of art, The Cooper Union, New York), Mounira Al Solh (visual artist, The Netherlands/Lebanon), Akram Zaatari (artist, Beirut).

Why Are We Here Now? is part of 100 Years of Now. Haus der Kulturen der Welt is funded by the German Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the German Foreign Ministry.

Why Are We Here Now? 
Three weekends with Adania Shibli, Mohammad Al Attar, Rabih Mroué
Performances, art, literature, discourse 
September 15 – October 7, 2017

Adania Shibli: 
After the Wildly Improbable
Sept 15 & 16, 2017

Mohammad Al Attar: 
Aleppo. A Portrait of Absence
Sept 21 – 23, 2017

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

Tickets: 4 to 14 euros

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