ONE IMMATERIAL COLLECTION is a new series of annual video screening programs at Beirut Art Center (BAC). The title evokes Jalal Toufic’s Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, a theory first published by the Lebanese artist and theorist in the essay Credits Included in his book Over-Sensitivity, about 19 years ago, and revised in 2009 to become the first chapter of the book of the same name.
According to Toufic, a disaster (page 57, here) can be a surpassing one if, beyond the death toll, “the intensity of psychic traumas,” and the extent of material destruction, “there would be an additional immaterial withdrawal of literary, philosophical and thoughtful texts, as well as of certain films, videos, and musical works, notwithstanding that copies of these continue to be physically available; of paintings and buildings that were not physically destroyed; of spiritual guides, and of the holiness/specialness of certain spaces.”
A surpassing disaster is called such because the effect it takes surpasses the material one, to an immaterial effect. An example is in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 film King Lear (mentioned in Toufic’s book), where a scene suddenly cuts to an intertitle reading “No Thing”, while the following is heard: “And then, suddenly, it was the time of Chernobyl, and everything disappeared, everything, and then, after a while, everything came back, electricity, houses, cars – everything except culture and me.”
Here, I will discuss the withdrawal of moving images following a surpassing disaster, and I will turn the adjective “immaterial” into a noun to refer to what gets withdrawn through a surpassing disaster: “im-Material.” My question is: Could an immaterial collection of withdrawn videos be made possible, and if so, what would be the nature of the “items” in it?
BAC’s recently launched screening cycle of video selections from its Mediatheque, an open-access, digital, multimedia library of regional contemporary art production, is to take place yearly. Each time it will be curated by a “different figure of the cultural scene” (according to the program sheet). Its first edition, Figures upon Landscape, was curated by Jim Quilty, the editor of the arts and culture section of Lebanon’s English-language The Daily Star newspaper, and it ran from October 24 to 31.
At the start of the second screening day, BAC director Marie Muracciole stated that the institution does not own the works, but is rather a collector, adding that “one could collect without buying.” Indeed, BAC collects without buying videos owned by artists, by digitizing them. One may be tempted to think that an attempt to “resurrect what has been withdrawn by the surpassing disaster,” in Toufic’s words (page 22, here), is at play, that BAC is collecting the fruits of such a resurrection. The videos are there at BAC, materially; but if some constitute withdrawn tradition then in the face of a surpassing disaster, the — human, all too human — process that is digitizing (the results of which are no less material than analog forms) will not contribute to im-materializing them, to the immaterial retrieval of that tradition. Obviously, we’re talking about some “real” work that needs to be done.
It is important to reiterate that a surpassing disaster is not measured by material damage, however big or tragic, but by the immaterial forms of damage withdrawal causes. The civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990-1992 is a surpassing disaster only if books, films, videos and musical pieces created during that period withdrew immaterially, despite remaining physically accessible to the community of the disaster. Is the Lebanese civil war a surpassing disaster? Deciding on this would require considerable work, beyond the scope of this text, but it could be carried out through an examination of BAC’s war-period archival material.
Immaterial withdrawal is subtler than material withdrawal. In one scene from Basma Alsharif’s we began by measuring distance (2009), two people stand apart from each other in a forest, holding a big white cloth. While a voiceover is heard declaring the measurements done between different cities (the distances in kilometers being superimposed on the cloth), we see the two people standing still in the frame with the cloth. This visually indolent, futile measurement is an immaterial one that results from the “ultimate disenchantment with facts when the visual fails to communicate the tragic” (in Alsharif’s words).
This video is included in Figures upon Landscape, which spans two decades and a half since the end of the civil war and includes Lebanese and regional works. During that time, there may be one or more disaster(s) that are more or less subtly surpassing than the civil war. If this is the case, and noting that a foreigner who is not part of the community of a surpassing disaster can have access to art works “to the other side of the surpassing disaster” (according to Toufic, citing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s use of One Thousand and One Nights in his 1974 film Arabian Nights as example), did the Canadian journalist-editor achieve a post-war montage of im-Material?
Quilty has the “benefit of the foreigner” here; not only a benefit, but an advantage too — indeed, he is a foreigner to BAC and to the country even after a 15-year stay. He was perspicacious to include videos by artists such as, but not limited to, Toufic, Alsharif, Ghassan Salhab, Dima El Horr, Vartan Avakian, Akram Zaatari, Siska, Walid Raad, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Rabih Mroué, Ali Cherri, and Jannane Al-Ani, but not enough to have appended alongside these works others whose candidature to being im-Material is implausible. A necessary pre-condition for a work to fit the description of the im-Material is to be solid enough not to collapse soon after its making (a collapse, unrelated to withdrawal, that reveals the work’s worth), and withstand the test of time; I believe that some of the selected works have collapsed. Quilty might have had a better chance at crossing the post-civil war surpassing disaster(s) had he kept to more “solid” works.
Among the items of Figures upon Landscape is a video that could attest to Walid Raad’s ongoing project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World (begun in 1992) by exhibiting similar symptoms of withdrawal: Short Wave / Long Wave (2009) by Vartan Avakian. The video maker mentions in the work the time when he began to stutter; he even stutters in the writing of a sentence, doubling one of the letters (أتأتتئ) before correcting it (أُتَأتِئْ). After this intertitle, we witness a stutteringly pixelized movement of the camera as it pans across a portal city. Indeed, Avakian the person is someone who has practiced overcoming his stuttering — while still being affected by it, he has wittily adapted to it. In conversation, he occasionally raises his hand to his lips, assuming a pensive look with narrowed eyes, as if searching through his thoughts. In fact, Avakian knows his ideas very well — he is gaining time to untangle the knot that is forming on his lips upon releasing the first letter of some sentence, and pursue his talking.
Can I sense traces of withdrawal in Avakian’s speech, and a defense mechanism he has devised against it? Isn’t stuttering a fitting complement to Raad’s prints, where misspellings and partially effaced scribbles and photos — especially in his recent contribution to Sfeir-Semler Beirut gallery’s GALLERY 3010 — are gradual re-emergences of the im-Material? Beirut dwellers will have a chance to ask Avakian such questions tomorrow, December 17, at his talk at the Sursock Museum, suitably titled How I Started to Stutter.
I am left to investigate the qualification of a curator to resurrect works of art. If William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth in Godard’s King Lear declares it his duty to reinvent movies and more generally art (including the plays of his ancestors) after Chernobyl, I ask how successful Figures upon Landscape was in resurrecting art that has suffered one or more surpassing disaster(s) taking place after Lebanon’s civil war. With only the first edition yet and more to come, it is too early to decree whether Muracciole and the commissioned “figures from the cultural scene” are sensitive to the phenomenon, and are therefore taking on and able to fulfill a mission of resurrection.
The contents of Figures upon Landscape are accessible to the public in BAC’s Mediatheque. The videos that fit the withdrawal criterion will of course only be accessible materially: even while people are watching the actual works inside BAC, something in these works will be inaccessible to the viewers; they are not really there. This state is analogous to the presence of the vampire, as Toufic puts it: The vampire is there in the room with someone, but has no image in the mirror; he/she is there, but not there. In one of his lectures in Ashkal Alwan’s HomeWorks program in 2014-2015, Toufic put forth the following scenario: During a war, a bombing destroys all buildings located in some area except one. People then say: “Thank God this building was spared.” But the building wasn’t really spared, it was only physically spared. The building is materially there to witness that it is immaterially not there.