The contemporary art world is a nebulous and ephemeral affair. In its crudest and most common usage, the "art world" is basically shorthand for a system plotted along a New York-London-Berlin axis. But the global expansion of key arts institutions, the rapacious proliferation of international biennials, festivals and fairs, the advantageous marriage of arts initiatives and iconic architecture for the sake of selling neoliberal dream cities and the relentless logic of venture capital have stretched the art world wide and thin. In theory, this is a positive development. In practice, it can make the art world seem like a nearly psychotic social calendar of far-flung, frequent-flyer cocktail parties that all feel the same yet agonise to be different, to be situated somehow, somewhere rather than anywhere.
Where does the art world manifest itself physically? The most obvious answer, of course, is in the works themselves - works that are made by artists, whether alone or in collaboration, whether for aesthetic pleasure or critical disruption, and whether in media immediately recognised as art or not. But to make those works mean anything requires some degree of public interaction, and so there are occasions for the art world to meet. Biennials, festivals and fairs have become the most obvious occasions.
But outside the established and entrenched institutions of art lie a wealth of innovative and frequently improvised occasions for the production, presentation and discussion of new work. They include workshops, residencies, research grants, field trips, conferences, symposiums and forums that are as fragile and precarious as they are urgent and intense. Perhaps the finest example in the Arab world is the Home Works Forum for Cultural Practices in Beirut.
Organised by the independent arts association Ashkal Alwan, Home Works gathers artists, writers, filmmakers and thinkers for an extensive program of exhibitions, lectures, panel discussions, performances, film and video screenings and publication launches that are staged in spaces throughout the city, open to the public and free of charge. This year marked the fourth forum since it was founded in 2001 in a bid to give shape to a surging art scene that had no official infrastructure for cultural production. (Lebanon to this day boasts no modern or contemporary art museum, the commercial gallery system concerns itself primarily with paintings and sculptures, and funds from the ministry of culture are meagre to nonexistent.)
By reconfiguring the frame around what constitutes an art world event, the Home Works Forum has managed to remain firmly focused on art and the discourse art produces. The same cannot be said for biennials and fairs, where glitz, glamour and gossip often overshadow the art. And so, over time, Home Works has attracted more and more attention from the art world precisely because it proposes a more productive way to manoeuvre beyond not only the art establishment but also the social and political orders that otherwise limit what contemporary art can do or say.
Ashkal Alwan staged the fourth edition of Home Works over nine days in April. Home Works I was postponed due to the second Palestinian intifada, Home Works II because of the invasion of Iraq, Home Works III because of the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. This year's event was postponed in 2006 due to the war with Israel, and then again in 2007 due to Lebanon's presidential election - which, as it turned out, was something of a non-event anyway.
Nine venues hosted five exhibitions, six performances, 23 film and video screenings and much, much more. Christine Tohme, Ashkal Alwan's director, put forth a few loose themes - such as sex, catastrophe and desire - but then left it to viewers to discover for themselves the threads stitching various artworks together. Inevitably, the program stomped through a lot of utter dreck - a weak performance by a young artist merely recycling the ideas of her mentors; several lacklustre lectures that failed to treat their weighty subjects seriously; an artist's talk that was so poorly considered that it came off as a cheap shot lobbed from a safe distance at perhaps the most pressing of Lebanon's current political issues. These were all missed opportunities, but they didn't really detract from the more outstanding works, many of which are still on view.
The Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui's Spectre is an exact, sculptural replica of a fabled building in Beirut. The piece is both physically imposing and psychologically haunting. The selective details and subtle formalist gestures - alluding to a dense history of shifting circumstances, downgraded aspirations and hard times - combine to create a moving reflection on failed modernism, vernacular architecture and everyday urbanism.
Emily Jacir's Material for a Film is a sprawling yet meticulous installation delving into the story of Wael Zuaiter, a poet who was gunned down in 1972 by Israeli agents in Rome, the first of several targeted assassinations of Palestinian artists and intellectuals in Europe. The piece, which won Jacir a Golden Lion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, strikes a complex pattern of notes, thwarting expectations of booming rage in favour of muted melancholy tempered by time and distance. The spatial arrangement of material takes the experience of cinema and breaks the screen into several sensations. As you walk through the installation, you literally see, hear and touch the work. The tactility of things - old magazines, book covers, fading photographs - makes Material for a Film deeply felt.
Perhaps piercing heartache that is somehow critically productive was the unspoken theme of Home Works IV. Several works pulled pointed political analysis into an affective practice, including Julia Meltzer and David Thorne's stunningly beautiful yet intellectually astringent video We Will Live to See These Things, and, Five Pictures of What May Come to Pass; Lina Saneh's stirring and at times hilarious video I Had a Dream, Mom, Lamia Joreige's probing video A Journey, Vahid Zara Zade's film POW 57187 and Jérôme Bel's performance Pichet Kluchen and Myself, which was sharp, gorgeous and 20 minutes too long and too French. The epitome of the forum's affective instances came with Michael Rakowitz's remarkable artist's talk, simply titled Three Projects, which explored the process and efficacy of works such as paraSITE, Return and The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (the last of which is part of the forum's exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, which remains on view till until May 31).
In general, the best moments during Home Works IV were those that matched craft to content and excelled at both. But artfulness wasn't the only trenchant story. Every night, the Home Works crowd - comprising more than 250 international guests and Askhal Alwan's robust if also clearly delineated local public - decamped to one of two nearby dive bars to continue the conversation. During the forum's formal and informal discussions, people shouted, insulted one another, argued heatedly over terms and theories and occasionally stormed out of theatres in frustration or disgust. It was, in other words, an invigorating and exhausting stretch of nights and days.
Rene Gabri - who presented excerpts from an accomplished video project on Palestine, co-authored by Ayreen Anastas and called What Everybody Knows - spoke about the forum's distinct sense of "urgent time". The writer, artist and theorist Jalal Toufic stressed the need to respect the forum with high-level contributions because, as he explained: "It's the only space we have left." Stuart Comer, a film curator for Tate Modern, aptly noted - during an otherwise disastrous discussion that followed a series of screenings on representations of sex, all courageously programmed by Akram Zaatari - that "we are all in a very precarious network at the moment."
Home Works fosters this kind of intensity and tension in part out of fear. Particularly with participants from around the region, people seize onto the forum as a space that is vital but fleeting. "It's so important for the region," said Emily Jacir during the installation of her work. Jacir has attended every forum so far. "It's about the type of exchange, this really intense energy. It's a place where we can all actually meet each other … For me as an artist, this is one event I'd never want to miss."
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.