SOUTH: Learning to Live with the Missing Piece
by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
‛Reading’ Beirut through the interventions of an elusive anonymous collective called Heartland
In the spring of 2005, I started exchanging emails with a group of artists I didn’t know. Sandra Dagher – who is now one of the artistic directors of the Beirut Art Center – was running a gallery called Espace SD at the time. I lived down the street, and used to stop in on my way to or from work at a newspaper nearby. Dagher’s gallery was ostensibly commercial, but it also functioned as a de facto community centre and non-profit art space. The main exhibition venue was booked months in advance and showed work that was almost always for sale, but there was one room called Le Laboratoire (The Laboratory) that was reserved for experimental work, which, in those days, had no chance of selling to anyone.
Dagher had told me about an upcoming project for Le Laboratoire by an anonymous collective that called itself Heartland. They had done two interventions in Beirut. One, called Al-Murashah (The Candidate), involved a black stencil of a man’s face on a sheet of white paper, which appeared on walls throughout the city during a municipal election season crowded with layers upon layers of campaign posters. Another, called Sarraf (Exchange), involved stamping words related to Lebanese pop culture on banknotes of different denominations and then putting them into circulation.
For Espace SD, Heartland had proposed to show documentation of those two projects in Le Laboratoire, and to make another intervention, called Propaganda, which would spill throughout the three-level gallery space. The group’s members had communicated with Dagher only through email, alerting her on occasion to a package or an envelope they had left for her somewhere in the gallery. It was all very cloak and dagger, and extremely interesting.
The posters for Al-Murashah included a nondescript email address — firstname.lastname@example.org — so I sent them a note to see if I could ask them a few questions. For a while we went back and forth about their work, and about anonymity and collectivity in a country beset by dismal identity politics and communitarian conflicts, in a city that functioned like a village, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and no private matter was left alone. Their responses were generous and to the point, warm without divulging anything beyond their thinking about the work, which they described, evocatively, as “a blank,” “a trace,” “an interrogation” and “a missing piece”.
If I do a deep search of my email inbox today, I find 70 messages with the search term “heartland”. Some are unrelated — a letter I wrote to an old friend asking her distractedly about a trip she took to some destination in the United States west of the East Coast; an email from an ex-boyfriend with ten words of reprimand for having left him, followed by 5,000 words of bitterness about the state of American politics. The rest are clustered around 2005 and 2006.
I ended up reviewing Heartland’s show at Espace SD for a newspaper, and I wrote a chapter of my master’s thesis on their work. When the curator Suzanne Cotter started visiting Beirut for research, I told her about the collective, and she invited Heartland to be part of the exhibition Out of Beirut. Their fourth project was a map of Lebanon that slipped stealthily, ingeniously, down a central stairwell in Modern Art Oxford. Most of our later exchanges are about that, or me sending them huge files of text, which they acknowledged with kindness and thanks but no further comment. By then I had three different email addresses for Heartland. Our communications died out in June 2006 – a month before the war, when Israel bombed the country for 34 days, financed in some small part by my tax dollars – and it hasn’t resumed since.
To this day I have no idea who Heartland is or was, where they are now, whether they are still together or making new work. Given that Beirut is small and the contemporary art scene even smaller, the chances are good that I already know them – I just don’t know that it’s them. I could start asking around, making phone calls and sending emails. With enough digging, I could probably find out who they are. But what if I discover that I do know them, and I don’t think much of the rest of their work? What if Heartland includes someone I adore or, more complicated, someone I detest? Would it change my reading of their work? Even to know that they are rich or poor, francophone or anglophone, from this social background or that, from one sectarian community or another? None of this should matter, but it might.
So I won’t ask and I won’t dig. I’ve learned to live with them being a missing piece in my mind. I have too much respect for their anonymity and collectivity, so central to the Heartland project, to wreck the precarious and ephemeral nature of their work. So much of the contemporary art that is challenging in Beirut is about the struggle to imagine and embody what the experience of citizenship, belonging and common cause could be in a democracy so deeply flawed and compromised that it has emptied the word of all meaning. So much of what we – that dangerous pronoun, used here to mean the loose assortment of people who are engaged in the art scene and have carved out greater space for it in the last few years – are trying to do is create a system that is better, more productive and more just than the one we are subjected to on a daily basis, a political and economic system that is thoroughly corrupt and laughably indifferent to us. The art scene is effectively fighting for a territory between shopping and war, both of which can easily coexist in a place like Beirut. We so often fail to conduct ourselves according to that system we would like to create. But Heartland somehow did it by putting the work first, and remaining unknown, a body of work based solely on ideas, strategies, materials and traces.
This is not to say I don’t miss them or wonder what happened to them. They initiated me in the practice of reading the city – for the signs of its crises, for the desires of its residents. Heartland’s projects signalled an explosion of street art, graffiti and urban intervention that was provoked, in part, by the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a one-ton car bomb that shattered two windows in my apartment, a good three kilometers away. The weeks and months and years that followed saw mass demonstrations and an outpouring of public art, some of it incredibly sophisticated, hopeful and critically self-aware. Some of those projects – stencils, stickers, posters and seemingly random glyphs – still stop me on the street. It’s been a volatile few years. There’s been much to say. So who is this now, making these fabulous, intricate, black and white murals in my neighbourhood? Sometimes I wonder if Heartland is still there, somewhere in the mix.
I thought of Heartland recently during a debate among friends, after a lecture by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi at the Home Workspace, Ashkal Alwan’s new home in the former industrial neighbourhood of Jisr al-Wati, next door to the Beirut Art Center. Berardi’s talk was primarily about the financial collapse in Europe. He admitted his knowledge was limited when it came to the uprisings lumped together as the Arab Spring. But the links were there. In many ways the lecture was nothing new, an amalgamation of Marx, Giorgio Agamben, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. But it resonated. We are all victims of a system we don’t like but we are also complicit in that system, too. Can we withdraw and disentangle ourselves from it and build some kind of solidarity through pleasure, desire, empathy and compassion? Beirut is a distinctly dangerous place to talk about isolated islands and clustered communities, but Berardi made a strong case for their potential, in the creation of a common space for poetic and intellectual production.
The idea was that in that common space, a new system could be composed. Berardi noted that, historically, revolutionary movements have too often neglected money, and then he reeled off examples of groups who are now devising their own, alternative systems of exchange. What got us, my friends and I, was the question: why does it have to be money? Couldn’t it be something else? Wouldn’t we end up replicating the same system, with the consequence being the same exploitation and the same precariousness, all of us freelancers of one kind or another, disembodied entities on the other end of a phone call or an email, saying yes, flushing away our time out of the overwhelming fear that if we were ever to say no we couldn’t be sure we’d survive?
Ashkal Alwan’s new space is primarily an art school, but it is also, like Espace SD in an earlier era, a community centre. It has begun restoring something that has been missing, to a certain extent, in Beirut’s art scene over the last few years, which is the time and space for unhurried discussion. As Berardi’s talk bounced around our heads in the days to follow, it seemed he had been prescient to address financial collapse in Europe and its tenuous connections to the Arab Spring in the context of Beirut. We are waiting. We have no focus for demonstrations, only the entire system, which depends on so much else besides. What will happen in Tunis and Cairo? Is Libya sorted out? Is Syria in a full-blown civil war? If Greece defaults on the debt and drops out of the eurozone, will the EU fall apart, will the Schengen regime end, and will we then be able to travel more easily to Alexandria through Greece, to Algiers through Italy, to Tangiers through Spain? Will the cities splayed out around the Mediterranean be restored to some kind of vexed and complicated whole? Will we recognise each other across that impossibly small sea, even if we remain unknown to each other? If there is a South, and a southern state of mind, then maybe that’s it. Draw a jagged line from Beirut to Athens, Cairo, Rome, Tunis, Madrid, Rabat – will we find some kind of solidarity in our experiences of violence, frustration, underemployment, uneven development and governments that regard us with contempt? Will we one day form some anonymous collective, and will we find the concepts and the curiosity for something like Heartland all over again?