Conversation with Pepón Osorio, Naya Salamé, Lisa Kraus

As part of ear-whispered, Lisa Kraus, project director, and Pepon Osorio, project consultant, were slated to visit Beirut in January 2018 to meet area artists and better understand the context out of which Tania El Khoury’s work arises. Unfortunately this trip was prevented because Bryn Mawr College’s insurers don’t provide coverage in Lebanon. Instead, a series of video-conferences were held. The following is a lightly edited version of one of those conversations, with Naya Salamé, a theater artist who has toured as a guide and technician for Gardens Speak and installed it at Bryn Mawr. It took place on January 19, 2018 and addresses authority, agency and the audience experience of El Khoury’s work.

Pepón Osorio: It’s always helpful to talk to people that are around the artwork, but also around Tania’s development of the work. At certain stages, each work means something different. I’m going to ask a lot of questions to you in relation to your connection to the work, both as an outsider and as an insider. What’s your relationship to the work? Specifically to Gardens Speak.

Naya Salamé: So I’ve only worked on Gardens Speak for now. The first time that I worked on it was in Beirut and Tania showed the work at a festival and I was a volunteer in the festival and I worked as an audience guide and sometimes a technician for it. I think it was a year later year that she contacted me so that I could start touring with it. She felt the role of the guide was more important than she thought originally, so she wanted to have the same person and she wanted to be sure it was going to be done right so I started touring with Gardens Speak and working as the guide, mainly, but also I managed the building of the installation.” And then I work as an audience guide for the rest, for the performances.

Pepón: Right. I remember you from the time we went to Boston and saw the work. You guided . . .

Naya: Oh, really?

Pepón: I don’t remember the group we were in, actually. The three of us were there.

Naya: What did you think?

Pepón: Oh. I was disturbed and that keeps coming out in the conversations that I’ve had with people. Disturbed and somehow confused. That’s a good question for me because it’s has prompted something else I wanted to ask you, about death. We talked to Dali—I don’t know if you know him.

Naya: Yes, I just met him.

Pepón: OK. We talked about death—which I also work and confront in my own personal work. I wanted to ask you specifically, how do you prepare yourself, or do you think that the audience—and this goes back to the question you asked me about what I feel about the gardens piece and I told you “disturbed.” I was disturbed because I have to prepare myself to face issues that are recurrent in my work and in my personal life. My question is, how do you prepare yourself to humanize the work and experience or do you not prepare yourself to be surrounded by the theme and all the experience of death when it comes in Gardens Speak?

Naya: Give me some time to think about that because it’s evolved every time that I worked on the piece. So, in the beginning, the first few times I felt like I needed to prepare because it was going to be something that is pretty tough on the audience most of the time. I felt like I needed to be ready to receive the audience’s emotions. But, little by little—I don’t know how this is going to sound—I have to disconnect myself from the idea of death because when I do the show five to six times in a row, staying in the dark for all of that time, I have to disconnect myself or it becomes really too tough on me. I remember in Beirut, the first time, it was particularly difficult because there were a lot of people there connected directly to the situation and, especially, there was one of the martyrs that people knew in the theater, in the circle. And it was really tough and I was feeling it one hundred percent all of the time, and it became too much. I just prepare myself physically as an actor. I feel like I have to be ready physically, but I don’t really connect to it as much as before. I don’t know if that makes sense or if it sounds a bit harsh. (more…)

Conversation with Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi, Pepón Osorio, Lisa Kraus and Tania El Khoury

As part of ear-whispered, Lisa Kraus, project director, and Pepón Osorio, project consultant, were slated to visit Beirut in January 2018 to meet area artists and better understand the context out of which Tania El Khoury’s work arises. Unfortunately this trip was prevented because Bryn Mawr College’s insurers don’t provide coverage in Lebanon. Instead, a series of video-conferences were held. The following is a lightly edited version of one of those conversations, with Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi, a young LGBT activist who had the task of scanning the letters written during performances of Gardens Speak in preparation for the new installation Tell Me What I Can Do. The conversation took place on January 17, 2018 and addresses the content of the letters and the thoughts that arose when working with them.

Tania El Khoury: I met Dali [Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi] last year when he worked with me on the pieces I did in Tunis. He’s a young guy who is an activist in LGBT rights in Tunis. When I worked there, they assigned him to me as an artist assistant, which is usually having a local person who would help with getting around and helping with everything in the process. So we bonded and we had a really good relationship. And because of how he affected me and getting to know his story and what he does in his everyday life, I started to work with other activists in the LGBT community in Tunis when I did the show there. And he ended up performing a little piece in the show. So now I invited him to come to Beirut, he wanted to visit anyways, and I said, “Please come and help me with the letters, you can digitize them,” and then we can be in the process of working together again. So we’ve been in this tiny room—but with a nice view of the sea—with loads of letters, and I’ve been having massive allergies and putting all sorts of masks and stuff on because of the dust. So he will also be able to give you insight on the letters as objects and as material.

Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi: Hi.

Lisa Kraus: This is Pepon Osorio and I’m Lisa Kraus. This conversation is mostly with Pepon. He will have some questions for you.

Dali: Nice to meet you.

Pepón Osorio: I am trying to assist Tania in creating a space that best represents her intention in the work [Tell Me What I Can Do]. Let me ask this question: What do you think is at the center of those letters. If you put all the letters together, what do you think is at the core, at the center, of those letters?

Dali: I see that a lot of people talk about the revolution in the letters. It creates a sort of revolution inside of the person who writes the letter. It raises a lot of . . . [asks El Khoury to translate a word from Arabic]

Tania: Anger.

Dali: Anger, yeah. A lot of anger inside the person who was listening to those persons [in Gardens Speak].

 Pepón: Can you describe a little about anger? Is it anger as in a force? Or is it anger as in a state of . . . ?

Dali: It’s related to there being a lot of persons that say, “I cannot do anything for you, so you are dead because I didn’t do anything.” So there is this anger for themselves, and for their state, that they didn’t do anything for those persons. So this anger is what creates this revolution of “I will continue your way,” “I will remember you in anything I will do,” “I will not forget your name.” It’s a lot in the forms of things that they will do after they listen. (more…)

Samer Abboud’s Reflections on Syria

The following text by Samer Abboud is from his talk at the Reflections on Syria event with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture on September 8 , 2018, at Sought in Philadelphia, part of the ear-whispered programming. Samer Abboud is an Associate Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University. He has published extensively on contemporary Syria, including a widely read book on the conflict titled Syria (Polity, 2018).

There used to be a joke about Lebanon that if you understood the country, then it was badly explained to you. I start my brief talk on the Syrian conflict with this joke both to temper expectations but also to suggest that what we call the Syrian conflict or the Syrian crisis is constitutive of a set of overlapping and intertwined processes that have impacted the lives of Syrians since 2011. In my brief talk today, I want to talk about these overlapping processes and to take us, very briefly, through some of the key events of the last seven plus years.

To do so, what I would like to do today, in the interests of time, is to ask the question of where the Syrian conflict stands today. An informed and reasonable response to this question has changed over the course of the conflict. This is especially the case in Syria where we have the co-existence of multiple, identifiable patterns at different stages over the last seven years: civil war; revolution; regional war; uprising; proxy war; humanitarian crisis, regional interventions, and so on. The conflict has elements of all of the above but cannot be reduced to a single one. What I would like to do today is suggest that there are three distinct phases defining the last seven years that have determined how we answer the question of where the conflict stands. Each of these phases corresponds to unique political and military situations.

The first phase was in the initial years when regime change was a possibility in Syria. The choice, so to speak, during this phase, was one between the regime or revolution. The main drivers of the conflict were determined by either the desire to overthrow or preserve the regime in some form and this shaped the politics of both domestic actors and regional states that intervened into Syria. Indeed, even though the initial protests in Syria were aimed at reform, they very quickly adopted the common language of the Arab uprisings and began calling for regime change. The context of these protests is important. In the decade preceding the protests, Syria had undergone economic changes that had negatively effected the most vulnerable of society while enriching many of those connected to centers of power. Wealth was being created in the country but it was not being distributed to the margins of society. This coincided with a continued stifling of political activity in which many people were unable to make demands on the government or the regime to addressing their increasingly dire economic situations. (more…)

Conversation with Abir Saksouk, Pepón Osorio, and Lisa Kraus

As part of ear-whispered, Lisa Kraus, project director, and Pepon Osorio, project consultant, were slated to visit Beirut in January 2018 to meet area artists and better understand the context out of which Tania El Khoury’s work arises. Unfortunately this trip was prevented due to Bryn Mawr College’s insurers not providing coverage in Lebanon. Instead, a series of video-conferences were held. The following is a lightly edited version of the first of those conversations, with architect/urbanist Abir Saksouk, architect and co-founder of Dictaphone Group. It took place on January 17, 2018 and offers a view of the thinking and creative process driving several of the works in ear-whispered.

Pepón Osorio: My position in the project is to be able to assist Tania in creating a context, in creating a frame, for presenting the letters [written by audience members in response to Gardens Speak]. How I do it is by having conversations with people that eventually lead to images and to circumstances that I can share with Tania. So I broke it down into several ideas which I’d like to share with you. And the beginning of it is: where do you think is the place of empathy in Tania’s work?

Abir Saksouk: I think a big part of Tania’s project comes from the context. So, because I’ve been in a lot of conversations with Tania—and not only conversations as we were both engaged in political activism regarding the Syrian revolution—about how the revolution was perceived here in Lebanon, how it was framed by the media, how it brought a lot of political tension. We’ve always felt that it was always a very contested political issue. I think this political and social context of how the [Syrian] revolution was perceived here in Beirut and how lot of the people who were faced with injustice were perceived negatively in the Lebanese context and also demonized. A part of the empathy that’s found in Tania’s project emerges from this context and from one thing: to bring a conversation about the Syrian revolution, the regime, and ways of engaging with people’s narratives and stories way beyond what the media was saying and what the dominant discourse was. And this in itself, as a way of trying to narrate a different history for these individuals, is a very strong act of solidarity and empathy. And this was specific to Gardens Speak. But more generally, and maybe here also, I can reflect on the work we do together in Dictaphone group, where we try very much to impact the dominant discourse, or dominant narratives, be they about the city and urban space, or about urban history, or about history in general. So I think this idea of wanting to have a say and a political stand towards mainstream issues is a position of wanting to change—and a position of empathy.

Pepón Osorio: In that place of empathy—which is very similar to the intention of the work that I do here—what do you think will be translatable? How do you think Tania’s work will translate at Bryn Mawr, at a university setting, at the space. Since you are collaborating with her, what are also your hopes to translate? I’m just going to tell you about an experience [that happened] the last time I saw Tania [in Boston in November 2017]. I got in a cab and I began to describe Tania’s work to the cab driver. It was like five o’clock in the morning and he started to get very emotional about it because he was a veteran and he fought in the war, in Iraq. It was very interesting that I also began to look at connections at that time of how can the work translate, that place of empathy, that place of the political unrestness that happened from the beginning and how we develop in the Arab world. I never thought about the veterans. I never thought of that community of people, I never thought of men and women who fought and went to the Arab world to fight in the war. And I began to think about how to translate that from a place that it wasn’t probably intended to be. You know, you work from the local, at least I do, you work from a place of an intention that it’s for the people around you and the people you don’t need to translate it for, and hopefully we don’t have to translate the work. But when you begin to move outside of that reality, there is new ways of looking at the work, there is new ways in which people begin to understand the work, and I was wondering if you have an idea of how you think the work will translate outside of Beirut? And I know the work has been shown in many places, right? That is not the question. The question is what’s the intention behind, or what have you seen the twist and the change in the perception of the work? And that’s why I started with empathy, because I think that it’s extremely empathetic, but I think somehow in your brain you go back in history as you look at the work and you have to have those references for it. And so how do you think the work will translate it?

Abir Saksouk: I know for sure that, at least, there is no intention of translating it into a feeling of pity. While we’re developing it, and I’m sure that Tania feels the same, that we don’t want it to translate it into a space where people feel pity or just sympathy. The project is trying to go beyond these feelings and this is where it’s a very fine line between a feeling of pity and empathy. I think there is a very clear will for it not to go to pity. Now, how we want it to translate goes more along the lines of opening, hopefully to audiences anywhere, a political conversation that will allow oneself to reflect on his or her own context. Because you linked it to veterans who fought in Iraq, I think it’s very important for people to take a political stand against incidents happening worldwide, and not see them merely as human collateral damage. We are fine with the war or we’re fine with supporting the war, but we sympathize with whoever gets affected by the war. And I think this is a global conversation, it’s not just related to one context or another. We also feel it here, where people are disengaged politically from what’s happening politically, but then there’s a sense of wanting to replace the feeling of guilt with other types of actions. And I think the project doesn’t want to go in that direction. (more…)

A very contemporary artistic enquiry!

by Kinana Issa

Holding a pen or a keyboard and having the privilege of speaking up when others can’t is a huge responsibility. Especially if those you’re speaking for literally don’t have voices to speak up for themselves. In Gardens Speak in particular, these voices were buried six feet under, depending on how deep their grave diggers were able to go with whatever tools they had under whatever kind of shelling was happening on the day of their funeral.

Such a responsibility weighs heavily on the shoulders of an artist when they want to discuss their art. In my case, it mutes any attempt to talk about art and its role, or even reflect on the artistic process. It becomes about the voices that need to rise and the narratives that the artwork is trying to preserve.

In 2013, I met artist Tania El Khoury in Beirut and worked with her on Gardens Speak. I had already been working closely with people on the ground—I have been one of those who raised their voices in the streets, and I worked with family and friends of the martyrs to embody their voices and their struggles in the text. Now, five years have passed, I’m in Toronto instead of Lebanon, and I feel the constant struggle to make sense of what happened to us, all of us. We had a simple straightforward demand. We did not want to keep paying the price of our parents’ and grandparents’ choices, which can be symbolized by the authority of the nation’s abusive father, as well as other patriarchal figures, including, at times, abusive parents, religious authorities, and even teachers and bosses. We demanded something different, a space to figure out our own ways and explore our own tools in order to actively determine our own destinies.

How did this demand become a sin that would result in us losing our lives, each other, our country and our loved ones? Those of us who made it to the other side arrived dead in the heart, scarred, imprisoned, or looking for forcibly disappeared family members and friends. How did all this result in an even worse authoritative reality to deal with? Why did we have to go through all of this for what the rest of the world considers to be a human right? Why did our revolution have to turn into a proxy-war? Why after paying such a high price, does freedom seem to be even further away than when we started? And why did the world respond to our call for freedom in what seems to be a regression into a state where maintaining world order can only be achieved through brutal exercise of certain forms of supremacy and thought control? (more…)

I Once Fell in Love with an Audience Member: Practice, Performance, Politics

BY TANIA EL KHOURY

“I Once Fell in Love with an Audience Member” was originally published by Ibraaz, a critical forum on visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East. Reposted here with permission.

Performance art is essentially feminist. Performance art is inherently political. Performance art challenges the status quo, state violence, oppression, and patriarchy. It is radical and ephemeral. It is not object-driven and cannot be bought or collected. At least, this is the legacy that was passed on to us from the 1960s by the first self-proclaimed performance artists. Those who were protesting the war in Vietnam, affirming the rights of women over their own bodies, and freeing performance from theaters and galleries by popularizing it as a form that exists beyond artistic skill and hierarchy; those who stripped performance down to its core—presence. Several decades later, it is no longer ‘cool’ to protest a faraway war by choosing to lie down in bed for days, or by walking up and down the stage bleeding from self-inflicted cuts on your body. Performance art has suffered decades of being ridiculed by television shows, the media, and even the general public. Its sometimes ‘shocking’ aesthetics have been depoliticized and judged as ‘elitist’ and ‘alienating.’ In the minds of many people this art form became synonymous with self-inflicted pain, self-inflated egos, obvious symbolism, obscure aesthetics, and the indispensable flash of genitalia.

Preferred Language

Perhaps for the reasons stated above, I find it easier to call myself a live artist. At first it may have been a lazy shortcut to avoid watching how people reacted if I told them I was a performance artist. ‘Performance art, you mean like this?’ they would ask, while pretending to perform some high school interpretive dance. But other than trying to avoid social awkwardness related to the misconceptions about performance art, I feel that the performances I create are not necessarily performer-centric, which I understand to be a key element of performance art. Live art is about creating experiences and unconventional encounters. Like performance art, it can happen using different mediums and in various spaces. It is a practice that is concerned with the public and it is this public experience that makes the artwork live, regardless of the presence of its performative or dramatic setup. As an artist working mainly in the public space, I also struggle with the word ‘intervention,’ which other people occasionally attribute to my work. Interventions remind me of drones and threatening political powers. Artistically, one can argue that there is a similarly aggressive (and arrogant) tone in proclaiming oneself an ‘art interventionist’. The need for an ‘intervention’ suggests an abrupt action, indispensable for ‘saving’ a certain place or community. Interventionists have no time for discussions. (more…)

Read The Philadelphia Inquirer article about Tania El Khoury’s ear-whispered

At Fringe Fest starting Thursday: Art that involves your body in what it feels like to be a refugee

by Bethany Ao, Posted: September 4, 2018, PHILLY.COM

Gardens Speak

When Lisa Kraus saw Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak in Amsterdam, she knew she had to bring the Beirut performance artist to Philadelphia. Kraus, performing arts coordinator at Bryn Mawr College, called El Khoury’s work the most affecting political art she’s ever seen.

During the immersive Gardens Speak sound installation, audience members are asked to don plastic ponchos and dig into facsimile graves. There, they uncover the narratives of 10 people killed in the ongoing uprising against the Syrian regime and buried in personal gardens.

“I admired Tania’s craft because she created a beautiful environment full of sensations that felt gentle but reached me at a profound level,” Kraus said. “The experience that day burrowed deep into me, making me curious about all the stories being told and the fates of all the families. It fostered empathy and connection in the most uninsistent of ways, so I knew this was something Philadelphia really needed to experience now.”

Gardens Speak, opening Sept. 12 at Bryn Mawr College, is one of five live El Khoury artworks about war and refugees featured at this year’s Fringe Festival under the collective title ear-whispered. The audience plays a crucial role in all five.

Along with Gardens Speak, there’s Stories of Refuge, opening Thursday at Twelve Gate Arts on Second Street, during which El Khoury invites audience members to climb into metal bunk beds and watch footage shot by Syrian refugees that portray their daily lives in Germany.

In another work, As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, opening Thursday at PII Gallery on Race Street and moving to Bryn Mawr Sept. 15, El Khoury invites a single audience member to interact through a gallery wall with Basel Zaraa, an artist who is also a refugee. During the encounter, Zaraa marks the audience member’s arm with paint, illustrating a family’s journey from Syria to Sweden. As he paints, the audience member listens to the stories of those who have challenged border discrimination.

And during Camp Pause, opening Sept. 12 at Bryn Mawr, audience members watch videos that show the stories of four residents of the Palestinian Rashidieh refugee camp.

Audiences can also share their Gardens Speak reactions via handwritten notes that become part of a new immersive work, Tell Me What I Can Do, also opening Sept. 12 at Bryn Mawr. In it, El Khoury asks audiences to sift through the notes and reflect upon their shared responsibility.

“My pieces allow people to be in a different way as a spectator,” El Khoury said. “It’s about allowing your body to be in a different situation while listening to a story.” (more…)

Performing The “Arab”

By Tania El Khoury

This text is based on a presentation given by the author at Fem Fresh event at Queen Mary University in London in 2014 and was published in the Kohl Journal for Body & Gender Research in 2016.

During the wave of uprisings that swept through the regions of the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of activists—many women among them—were detained, imprisoned, tortured in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, and beyond.

Women in Egypt were present in great numbers in the public demonstrations of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. They affirmed their visibility despite the beatings, gang rapes, and the military-administered virginity tests. In one particularly infamous moment, a soldier dragged a woman on the floor, revealing the blue bra she was wearing before he and his colleagues proceeded to stomp on her. Quickly after that theatrical act of oppression and repression, many deployed the blue bra as a feminist symbol of resistance to both authoritarianism and patriarchy. The image appeared graffitied on walls of various Arab cities.

Women were leading protests in Bahrain. There, the regime detained and arrested their husbands in the hopes of silencing and reigning in the wives that were at the forefront of the movement. One friend of mine, Nazeeha Saed, was arrested and tortured. At one point in this ordeal, authorities shoved her shoe down her throat in an attempt to literally silence her while punishing her for being outspoken. Her voice became much louder after that incident. (more…)