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Thursday 02/14

On Instituting A New Space For Thought

by Sarah Rifky, Codirector, Beirut, Cairo, with introduction by Ryan Inouye, Assistant Curator, Museum as Hub, tagged with Museum as Hub, Beirut, Cairo, Art Spaces
Cover Image:

Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann, Labour in a Single Shot, 2012. Factory visit in Alexandria. Image courtesy Beirut

In the late spring of 2012, curators Sarah Rifky (formerly of Townhouse in Cairo) and Jens Maier-Rothe (Whitney Independent Study Program graduate) had both planned to be in Beirut. A fortunate turn of events kept them in Cairo a little longer than planned and founding Beirut, an art initiative and exhibition space located in a three-story 1940s villa in the Agouza neighborhood of Giza (Cairo). In this residence, the initiative affords thinkers, artists, artworks, and even other institutions the space and time to be and work in Cairo. Beirut’s three ten-week seasons (with summers closed for research) accommodate various curatorial endeavors—ranging from workshops and screenings to exhibitions, dinners, and bi-monthly interventions in an English-language Egyptian weekly newspaper.

Beirut also considers, as they have written, how institution building can be a curatorial act. Their first season launched with a filmmaking workshop by Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann that focused on capturing the subject of labor in one single shot. This formal constraint posed a set of questions in the workshop that also seem important to the labor of establishing an art institution: How to find a beginning and an end, particularly when dealing with a repetitive process? How to capture the choreography of a workflow in a single shot in the best, most interesting way? In more concrete language, one could ask if every urban center needs a flagship museum and collection, and if gallery exhibitions should remain central to their curatorial program? How and what does art communicate and to whom? In the case of Beirut, operating amidst the constraints of political and economic instability, how can hosting such a workshop both contribute to and be the subject of a single shot that conveys art’s potential to do work ?

In the following contribution, Rifky takes up some of these questions, reflecting on the founding of Beirut. A version of this text was presented at the CIMAM 2012 Annual Conference in Istanbul.

On Instituting A New Space For Thought

Sarah Rifky

This place is called Beirut.

Outside view of Beirut, July 2012. Image courtesy Beirut

In the context of the occasion of a talk on crisis, I am encouraged to think of myself as being part of a new region, or at least to speak on or on behalf of this position. But regions, like relationships, like home, are somehow not fixed. It is possible to suspend this question and to think of a place that, temporarily, is a little less hinged on certain mechanisms that govern art. I imagine that art is a resource sometimes, like oil or natural gas, which has not been identified in its raw form and hasn’t been assimilated into a certain economy. Of course, this is changing slightly, when we look at “the region” (of the Middle East, say) rather than just in the context of cities (like Cairo or Beirut), isolated from one another. In the most hopeful way, I imagine that the space that contemporary art affords is still like an oasis, a possible parallel place for thought and practice, and inhabiting it sometimes feels like an illicit privilege.

When I was much younger, my refuge into artworks and their stories was a little like my love for literature. Gradually, this fantasy expanded from singular artworks into spaces that manifested around artworks: museums, exhibition spaces, and so on. There was a transference of this fantasy space that an artwork could create to the idea of the institution: a museum of art, an art school, and so on. This impulse, a love for institutions, predates my desires for creating institutions.

Some time ago, I came across a text that is a key to some of my questions around thinking of institutions, which is helpful in this discussion on new regions.

The text is by John Searle and is called “What is an institution?”

It reminds me a little of the Haddaway song from the early ’90s, “What is love?” This is how it goes: “I don’t know / You’re not there / What is right, what is wrong / Give me a sign / What is love / Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more…”

In the opening of his text, Searle poignantly points out the nuances of teaching economics; he speaks of the “voice” in which he was taught. Learning about equal investment in the same tone of voice one uses to teach that force equals mass times acceleration, for example. He points to this uncontestable “voice” of science. This makes me wonder what “voice” and what “language” we use to think and talk about art institutions today?

Over the course of my working with art, in art, it was never suggested that the reality of the art world and market, and the reality of art institutions (like economic and historical realities) is largely dependent on human beliefs—our beliefs— and attitudes.

In the same way that two dogs fight over a bone and how their scuffle is an engagement in the disposal of a scarce commodity, this kind of example is largely ignored in economics discourse. In the same way, I imagine one could turn to certain artworks and imagine how they relate to a discourse on institution building and discussion on the art economy and its relationship to new regions.

It was in a lecture earlier this year that I adequately misunderstood a point Diedrich Diedrichsen was making while talking about institutions. He said: “I don’t care if people chose to learn by going to school or to an artwork.” In my notes, I wrote: “every artwork is a school.” Later on, I scribbled next to it: “send institutions to artworks.”

It makes me think of Walid Raad’s Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, and a particular point he made of a physical phenomena where colors, lines, and forms hide in documents and stationary paper—they become encrypted into the bureaucratic tools of an institution. I imagine it is safe to say that in order to safeguard art, in some ways, perhaps it also has to be embedded within the structural realization of an institution.

When we came to think of starting a new institution in Cairo, there were many practical considerations at the back of our minds. What type of institution would we start? And not in the programmatic sense but what kind of structure, how will we finance it, and how do we conceive of its role within the constellation of already existing spaces? We realize that a large constituent of our public is not just artists, cultural producers, and an art audience, but also art institutions form a type of public. Much of our day-to-day communication is with program partners, readers of our grant proposals, and so on. As such, we conceive of Beirut and the back channels of our work as part of our curatorial work. Each element of setting up the institution is conceived with artists. To give an example, the legal status and framework of the institution is being conceived through a set of instructions by the artists Goldin+Senneby.

To go back to Searle, a simplistic way of understanding his argument around institutions is that, historically, thinkers have taken language for granted; therefore, they have presumed that the economy is the institution of economics. He goes back to question how, with the writing of the Social Contract, it is already presumed that people speak a language and the first question instated then becomes: How do these people, how do we, form a social contract?

When we speak of artists and art, we also speak of language, and here I wonder why, when thinking of institutions, their relations, and their future, do we not assume a language that is more akin to art?

The glossary that informs much of how we speak of the conditions in which we work today involves addressing “crisis” and “austerity.” Perhaps, like when I was much younger, escaping into artwork and into books as a space from which to perch myself onto imagination (or onto a stage) or open the world up laterally and sideways—to conceive of a space that playfully suggests a subtle reinstitution of places (Beirut in Cairo)—I don’t see it as a gesture that refrains from certain pleasures. Of course, one could say we work within an unstable situation and at a time of extreme difficulty, politically, ecologically, economically—though these conditions are not the only determinants of our work and, if they are, then they can also be generative of new thought.

I would like to conclude by thinking about Sophie Calle’s “Take Care of Yourself.” She receives an email telling her that her relationship is over. She doesn’t know how to respond. It ends with the words “Take care of yourself…” A love crisis. Bent on investigating love, desire, and ourselves, we have all suffered, we suffer from crises of love. Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak both allude to this state of crisis of love, in love.

As art institutions, we are bound to each other. Like relationships, some of us are dependent, codependent, or counter-dependent on one another. Ideally, we strive to be interdependent, in love.

To deal with her crisis, Calle invites over a hundred responses, from women (including two made of wood and a parrot).

To deal with crisis.

To analyze it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me.
Answer for me.

To take care of yourself. To take care of art. To take care of institutions.

With love.

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