For seven days in late September, a group of rather atypical sightseers gathered in the Lebanese capital. Some had come from afar and had never been to Beirut before; others had simply rolled out of bed and into the city where they were born. They had a fixed itinerary, but the destinations they sought were not the usual hot spots. Instead, they travelled to derelict buildings and disused markets. They tarried on construction sites and wandering into wastelands. They took an ardent interest in debris the way most people turn their attention toward tourist trinkets. Who were these people? Artists, of course. What were they looking for? In a word, ruins. Not the obvious archaeological relics or the war-torn structures that constantly remind everyone that Lebanon has experienced civil strife. These artists were searching for sites unseen in the day to day life of the city and its inhabitants.
This little adventure into the urban unknown was Beirut Every Other Day: The Ruin in the City, the first workshop organised by the cultural association 98 Weeks, which was established a year ago by Marwa and Mirene Arsanios (both up-and-coming, Beirut-based curators who are in fact cousins, though they are often mistaken for sisters). Two days before the end of Ramadan, the Arsanioses mounted a makeshift exhibition of works by two dozen artists who were inspired over the course of the workshop. It included three performances, countless photographs and videos, and a few sculptures and drawings that were all remarkable for their polish and their depth, especially considering the haste with which they were produced. The presentation, which took place on the second floor of an old building behind the Sanayeh Garden, was ragged, improvised, youthful - and it illustrated how Beirut still manages to incubate a vital, independent art scene, and how the workshop model is why more and more important to how artists in and around the region work.
An initiative that concentrates more on the process of art making than the result, 98 Weeks is a rolling research project that carves out chunks of time (roughly two years with, say, six weeks of holiday) for artists, critics and curators to read, think, study, learn and begin to produce new works (or, in the case of curators and critics, to constellate and consider those works as they are in progress).
The Arsanioses choose a theme and form a research module around it. The motivation behind Beirut Every Other Day was the study of spatial practices - how a contemporary artwork may be generated from the exploration of a particular place; how one perceives, experiences or inhabits that space; the social, political, cultural or economic relations that that space gives rise to; and the sensitive or subversive possibilities that are available to artists if and when they want to mess around with that space.
Beirut Every Other Day began a year ago with a public seminar by Cuauhtemoc Medina, a critic and curator from Mexico City, on the work of the artist Francis Alÿs. The Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui (along with the Swedish curator Cecilia Andersson) travelled to Beirut in late September to lead The Ruin in the City with 24 young local and international artists. (In December, Alÿs will be in Beirut for a second workshop, to be followed by a third in February with the Italian art collective Stalker.)
The Arsanioses admit that The Ruin in the City might have overwhelmed some of the participants with information overload."We met every day, we had dinner together, we went out together, we had fun together. It was very, very intense. There was no time for tension," says Mirene."What we wanted to do in one week," says Marwa, "was deep research, field work, debate, a reading group, screenings, theory, philosophy, production, practice."
"It was too much," jokes Mirene. "We were megalomaniacal.""We were too ambitious," concedes Marwa. "With the international participants, we dumped too much information on them. By the end, they were on the floor!"