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.

Pepón Osorio: That brings me to another question: the place of the object. Exhibitions, performances are object driven, movement driven. What do you think is the place of the object of the letters in all of this? [In Gardens Speak, audience members are invited to write letters and bury them in the dirt. Tell Me What I Can Do, premiering at ear-whispered, is made from an archive of these letters.] How do you see this object responding or in conversation with what we have talked about? A letter in relationship to self-recognition, a letter in relationship to awareness, and to connecting with all the things. How do you see the object? By the object, I mean the letter, the ground. I’m talking specifically about the garden . . . the light, the surroundings, the environment. How does that come about for you as an architect?

Abir Saksouk: For me the letters are beyond their content, and are objects loaded with meanings. And these meanings very much emerge from the trajectory these letters went through—where they came from, who were they written by, where were they placed, what texture they started acquiring, what color they started acquiring, and all of these meanings that each and every letter has makes it almost an archival object. I think all of them together would in themselves, then again, create another object which is the experience of the space. And here a lot of decisions need to be taken. I also worked on designing the installation for Gardens Speak, the actual burial place. Back then, the conversation was around how literal this should look, or how little this should be designed, or how much we wanted it to be far away from symbolism, yet we also wanted it to be far away from recreating an actual garden. And so these ideas of the room being dark, the wood being used wood, creating a minimal object, but then able at the same time to not look sterile or as if it belongs in a pure exhibition space. I think all of these decisions and conversations back then are coming back now with the installations of the letters. Meaning, how can we mediate between not turning the experience of the space into a totally sterile one that looks very much like an exhibition, where something is framed and looked at with detachment, without any interaction. Whereas, at the same time, we don’t see it happening as a space that is totally literal, that feeds you an experience or feeds you “this is this” or “this is that”, but actually plays on the grey zones in between. And all of these are design ideas and concepts that we are trying to play with right now. I don’t know if I actually answered you question.

Pepón Osorio: I’m perceiving [that] what I’m asking you might be a third generation of what the original idea was. But when you talked, I wanted to ask you why is it important to make it public? Those private letters now.

Abir Saksouk: I don’t want to answer on behalf of Tania . . .

Pepón Osorio: No! No! I’m asking you! For you.

Abir Saksouk: For me—because I think the conversation needs to keep happening. And that conversations always change shape, change form, depending on time, space, incidents, history . . . things are changing. I think the context of how Gardens Speak came to happen a few years ago is a different context today.

Pepón Osorio: Right.

Abir Saksouk: Things have changed a lot during the last three or four years and it’s very important to revisit this conversation through different tools, means, and mediums. And this is something that we do a lot in our projects in Dictaphone Group, where the project doesn’t really have an end because it keeps taking on different shapes. So one time we do it as a performance, another time it’s a book, a third time it’s a sound piece, a fourth time it’s an article. I think this is an extremely interesting idea; that a certain thought or a certain project keeps taking different shapes and each time it’s probably attracting different audiences and opening a different form of conversation.

Pepón Osorio: For me, it’s about finding myself in a much larger place. I remember writing the letter and the comments that I made. I remember my letter—and for me it’s about starting from the “self” into the “collective.” So then when I look at the letters, all of them put together, I can begin to create a sense of a global sense. But also connecting dots that I never did of how other people responded to the performance and/or to the situation. So I think it’s important to make it public here, in the United States, as well. I’m just trying to figure it out what needs to happen, or how do we intend, or how does Tania intend, ultimately, to present the work. I don’t see it as an a “Arab reality” and a “North American reality,” because there are also so many Arabs and so many other people that live here. I am more interested in making sure that when those letters go up, Tania feels assertive that there is a connection, and that people can make a connection similar to the connections people made when they saw Gardens Speak the first time.

Abir Saksouk: Even if it’s a different sort of connection.

Pepón Osorio: Yes, exactly. But, I wanted to keep that alive. How do we keep it alive? So that’s a suggestion that I’ll bring back to Tania and then Tania ultimately either wants to keep it alive or not. That’s her job as artist. I think that that’s extremely important that the original intention is there.

Abir Saksouk: I agree.

Pepón Osorio: And it takes a completely different course because we are talking about years in between . . . but the intention is still there. And that’s what keeps, for me, a work of art strong.

Lisa Kraus: Based on your long association and collaboration [with Tania El Khoury] and the direction the Dictaphone Group has taken, I’m just wondering about how you might conceive your role?

Abir Saksouk: I think that over the course of several years we’ve had a lot of conversations about the relationships—and because I come a background that’s purely about architecture, urbanism, and research—how much is it about the research, how much is it about the art, or how much is it something else that we’re constantly experimenting with and trying to develop, to develop processes and ways of thinking about it. This conversation is worthwhile because it’s always about negotiating between content, between form, between outcome, and always having the conversation about what shape does the content take. In several of the projects that will be shown there, there are examples of different ways in which the conversation went, or in which the content took shape. I also think not a lot of people do this sort of collaboration or this sort of process. And I do think it is a process. So when I say it’s a process it’s just not throwing it as a word, it’s because I believe that in Dictaphone Group we’re always in the process of developing what this means and we’re always trying to reflect on it.

Lisa Kraus: That’s very helpful.

Abir Saksouk: People always find it very difficult to define our work, or actually to put it in a box, or put a name on it. That ambiguity, for me, is extremely interesting and it is something we don’t shy away from and it has had a positive impact on our work.

Lisa Kraus: In a similar way to what you’re saying about process leading in directions that you haven’t anticipated or that it’s an ongoing research, how things want to evolve, I feel that this project also has this quality. What are going to be the events that surround the presentation of the work itself. That’s in formation. What are the conversations that are going to take place? So that kind of organic continued research and development feels parallel in a way.

Abir Saksouk: Yes. Yes. Thank you and nice to meet you, virtually. Hopefully we will meet up soon face to face.

Lisa Kraus: Yes. Yes. Very important.

Pepón Osorio: Thank you, Abir!