Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Beirut Art Center opens in a splash

(C) Akram Zaatari Beirut Art (BAC) is a non-profit association, space and platform dedicated to contemporary art in Lebanon. The aim of the center is to produce, present and promote local and international contemporary art and cultural practice in a structure that is open and active throughout the year. It is a public space that makes art accessible to a large and growing of resident and visitors alike. Along with the main exhibition space, BAC includes a screening and performance room, a mediatheque and a bookshop. The purpose of BAC is to serve as a catalyst for the realization of contemporary art projects and for the interaction of local and international cultural players. The center is located in an industrial zone that visitors can easily access from all over the city. It is an independent, stand-alone building with 1,500 square meters of space divided across two floors, designed by architect Raed Abillama. The founders and Executive Board of Beirut Art Center association are: Sandra Dagher, Lamia Joreige, Maria Ousseimi, Rabih Mroue and Bassam Kahwagi. In addition to the main exhibitions, there will be parallel events throughout the year such as screenings, talks and round tables, and concerts and performances. Guided tours can be organized for schools and cultural institutions and workshops will also take place to outreach art to the surrounding community. For its first major outing, BAC offers an exhibition entitled “Closer.” In its press release, BAC wonders “How does one define “the intimate”? When is a story worthy of becoming public? What marks the border between a personal experience and an artistic one? BAC’s opening exhibition features artworks drawn from personal and intimate stories, which create a space to reflect on experiences both common and unique, familiar and without precedent, public and intensely private.” “The exhibition is loosely based around three stands: Works in which artists create narratives around the presence of one or a few close members of their families. Works in which artists take a personal story in order to reflect on our collective histories and their multiple narratives. And finally, works in which artists represent themselves at the center of the piece, raising questions as to the relations between’s one’s self image and one’s public image.” The exhibited works are: Jananne Al-Ani’s “A loving man” - a channel video installation; Tony Chakar’s “4 cotton underwear for tony” - an installation; Antoine D’agata’s self-portraits -19 C-Prints mounted on Aluminum; Mouna Hatoum’s “So much I want to say” a black and white video and sound; Emily Jacir’s “Crossing Surda (A record of going to and from work)” - two-channel video installation on projector and monitor; Jill Magid’s “Composite” - composite drawing, letters and soundtrack; Anri Sala’s “Intervista” – Video color and sound; Lina Saneh’s “Body parts” – installation; Lisa Steele’s “Birthday suit with scars and defects” – a video, Akram Zaatari’s “Saida June 6, 1982” – Composite digital image, lambda print, video, personal notebook and photo albums; Cynthia Zaven’s “Missing links” – an installation with text, photos, sound and piano composition. In an interview with Beirut/NTSC Sandra Dagher, one of the founders of the BAC talks about the inner working of the place. So, how was the opening and how did you reach the people in question? Actually, some 1,000 people showed up, it was phenomenal… We used some tried and tested methods such as mass mailing, but also relied on facebook, emails, etc…. Do you thing that things like facebook and new media are pushing things further? Yes. Especially with the younger crowd. I came a bit late, but from what I saw is that many people were mingling upstairs and not really checking out the artworks. No I think people saw the artworks and then went upstairs and of course they stay longer upstairs than at the exhibition. It an exhibition where there should be less crowd so you can enjoy it. Plus you can’t forget that it was the opening of the centre so everyone was coming to check out the place. Why a Beirut Art Centre now and what the difference between BAC and Espace SD? I had SD for like seven years. In 2004 I contacted Lamia Joreige, an artist, because I had this plan to construct a mediatheque at Espace SD where people can come watch videos, etc. Then, we started talking about SD, what was good about it, what wasn’t good about it and its limits. For me, it was a private space, a gallery completely financed by the sales. So the artistic direction depended on the sales, so there were lots of artists and art that we couldn’t feature because we couldn’t sell. We concluded that there is a real need for a non-profit space in Beirut. We have galleries and museums and foreign cultural centres, but we don’t have a Lebanese art centre completely dedicated to contemporary art. So we started discussing the idea in 2004, and then we started brainstorming the concept and then all the political problems arrived and it didn’t happen until now. How does this survive financially? It is completely financed by donations. We wanted to the private donors, sponsors, private and public institutions. The idea of having private donors is something new and they were encouraged by the idea. But people might say I’d rather invest in an orphanage, etc rather in art because many view art as luxury. I don’t agree. I don’t think art is luxury. Art and culture have to be part of our lives. Showing art is showing different ways of expression and having a space that can fit this kind of project is very important. Apart from usual suspects who navigate galleries, do you think anybody else is drawn into this? The aim is to draw a larger public. This is of course not going to happen in a day and it will take time. We will reply on media coverage, posters, word of mouth, online media and everything else that will help us bring a wider crowd. There are some brilliant works at the exhibition Closer. How do you think they will impact people’s life? The whole concept was to show the artistic process of an artist who uses private experiences and make them public. You have two stages: how you make something personal public and how the audience can relate to the artworks. It is very subjective. The intention was to give an intimate and closer reflection on contemporary art because it is usually thought of as inaccessible. Could you explain the organizational hierarchy of the centre? The BAC is a non-profit association and we have founders who are the board members. Lamia Joreige and I who started the initative. Rabih Mroue, an artist. Maria Ouseimi, part of the Ouseimi foundation, so she knows how such a foundation works. And bassam kahwagi who is a graphic designer and editor. We are the executive board who take the descisions and decide on the artistic direction of the centre. It is not a one person thing. Raed Abillama designed the interior of the space. He didn’t touch the architectural part. He left it a little bit as it was, he kept the spirit. Why an industrial area? Because it fits our needs: open space, high ceilings, natural light, etc. And we chose this area because it is accessible from different regions and parts in Beirut. Who did the identity? Nathalie Fallaha and her team at vit-e. We didn’t want to have something strong, but rather opted for the minimalist and Zen like identity which fits with the spirit of the place. We are not a brand, we are a space… How did the choice of artists happen? After we settled on the idea, we started researching possible artists. Some we knew, others we didn’t know. Logistically it might have been a nightmare with all the screenings and video. How did this technical process happen? Do you have a team? We have a technical team. The artists send you technical requirements and then we try to fit those requirements. Where did you see this place going? For the moment we want to do regular activities, art exhibitions every two months and a half, collaborate with other organizations who can organize events at the centre, develop the mediatheque, open the cafĂ©, a platform for public artists. How much of SD is transferable to such an organization? I don’t like to think as such. SD was a past experience. I think the only thing transferable is myself and the experience I gained and of course the network. Our next outing will be the emerging artists exhibition. Artists who are not established, but who already have work. An exhibition that is open for all.
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