Wonder, wander – No. 3: Time spills upward and downward, and all around
Conversations from this year’s Spring Sessions
 
 
 
Spring Sessions participants sit down for a rest on day 29 of the walk, on the hike from the Dana Nature Reserve to Petra. - Courtesy: Sara Elkamel
 

When a group of people spends an extended period of time together, on the move — in the case of a protest, a pilgrimage or a school trip, for example — it is very common for a song or a chant to emerge, to capture the collective spirit, reinforce an ideal or intention or crystallize memories from the journey. During Spring Sessions, a 45-day artist residency that took place earlier this year, in which a total of around 30 international artists walked from the northern tip of Jordan to the southern port city of Aqaba then crossed over to Sinai, Egypt, the recurrent chant was a name: “Toleen. Toleeen. Toooleeen.” Except it was less of a chant, and more of a plea.

Toleen Touq, a Jordanian curator, writer and cultural operator, co-founded Spring Sessions in 2014, together with Jordanian curator Noura Al Khasawneh, as a 100-day residency and learning program in Amman. For the past four years, the project aimed to address the lack of critical art education in Jordan by providing an experimental and more experiential form of pedagogy. Unlike many self-guided artist residencies worldwide, this one was relatively structured. Its formal elements have included a rigorous mentorship program, group critiques, workshops, reading groups, as well as final presentations or exhibitions of the participants’ work. For this year’s edition of the residency, however, Touq and Khasawneh loosened and challenged this structure. And their decision to move the program out of Amman, and to abandon its (relative) fixity for the sake of constant motion — from the north of the country to its south — has meant an increased openness to chance and uncertainty.

As planned, we started in the north and walked the length of Jordan in about six weeks, before arriving in Sinai for a final eight days. The group shape-shifted considerably over the course of the walk; while around 12 people completed the full 45-day program, most of the artists joined the walk for slightly, or significantly, shorter periods. Also irregular was the walk’s pace. Some days, deterred by heat, rain or exhaustion, we did not walk at all; it was then that we had time to hold lengthy readings and cook ambitious meals, such as eggplant fatteh and slow-cooked lamb. On other days, it seemed like our hikes would never end. Two particularly demanding treks took place in the second and fourth weeks respectively: the first was a four-day trek from Umm Qais to Ajloun in the north, and the second, a five-day walk, started in the Dana Nature Reserve and ended in Petra. On these guided hikes, we walked an average of 15 km a day, spent the nights in tents and consumed ungodly amounts of dried fruit.

Spring Sessions’ program manager and associate curator Victoria Dabdoub routinely updated a Google Doc spelling out the daily schedule, but very often, we had very little internet access and a decreased tolerance for our phones. On many occasions, we had no idea where we would be in a day’s time. What that essentially meant was a constant stream of questions directed at Touq: “Toleen, how many kilometres do we have left? Toleen, how about a reading tonight? What are we having for lunch? Toleen, how many more hours until we reach the campsite? Can we have a drawing workshop today? Is there coffee? Is there more coffee?” But Touq didn’t always have the answers to our questions on hand. In fact, she often threw the questions right back at us. (In part, because she no longer wanted to hear the sound of her name.) She was adamant on consulting the group on the workshops we would organize for the day, what to cook for dinner and even what time to set our alarms for.

Toleen Touq makes a fresh batch of coffee for the group in the heart of Wadi Numeira, near the Dead Sea. - Courtesy: Parastoo Anoushahpour

Less than two weeks into the walk, we stopped at Taybeh Farms, a family-owned farm in Rajeb, just south of Ajloun. Because it had started to rain, wildly, sporadically and unexpectedly, we stayed at the farm for a few days, not walking. In that time, we helped farmers and artists Firas Taybeh and Alexia de Tillesse with farm chores; mostly weeding, cleaning around the farmhouse and planting trees. It was also a good time to get organized: there was a week in the schedule bearing an intimidating amount of question marks, partly because the Spring Sessions team wished to include the group in deciding the route. One sunset on the farm, Touq went up to the roof with Iranian-Canadian artist-filmmaker Parastoo Anoushahpour and Portuguese artist Nuno Cassola Marques, to fill in the gaps. Visible from the roof were fields of crops and trees, where, lemons, oranges, clementines, olives, pecans and azkadynia (loquat) grow. Grey clouds piled and the air grew chillier. Between them, they unfolded a massive map of Jordan, and considered alternatives for days 18-24 of the route. Anoushahpour, who developed a strong interest in the religious sites of Jordan on the walk, knew for sure that she wanted to visit Lot’s Wife — the pillar of salt into which the wife of Lot (a religious figure in Christianity and Islam) was turned into as punishment for her sins. Other members of the group had expressed interest in visiting other archeological sites, like the Baptism Site and an ancient sugar mill, and many were curious about the Lowest Point on Earth Museum — located 1,329 feet below sea level at the edge of the Dead Sea. That evening, Touq, Anoushahpour and Marques sketched out a plan for the week that was previously left blank.

We were asked to come prepared for radically different conditions. On the list of what to bring to the residency were hiking shoes, a backpack, a water bottle, warm clothes, swimwear, sunblock (this came strongly recommended), insect repellent, sleeping bags etc. There was no mention of art supplies, and rightly so. One of the participants this year, French artist Thomas Amouyal, had packed, in his bulging red backpack, large sheets of paper on which to draw the changing landscape as we walked. Mere days into the walk, however, he ditched the stack of paper, quickly realizing it wouldn’t be the kind of residency where he could sit for hours and leisurely draw the unmoving scenery. We were moving too fast.

Amouyal was quick to change pace. Throughout the walk, he led a number of drawing workshops for the group, often planned within a few minutes of them happening. “Thomas, drawing workshop?” Touq would ask him, and he would shrug and say, “Sure, why not?” Among many other surreal locations, Touq’s invitation came when we climbed up to Lot’s Cave, located south of the Dead Sea and near the village of Ghor al-Safi; in the wet, purple-clad Numeira Valley; and atop the sand dunes by one of the campsites on our hike from the Dana to Petra. For these drawing sessions, Amouyal sourced the group for live models. The workshops offered us a chance to briefly disconnect from the road — but because we were usually racing against a looming sunset, they usually only lasted for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Thomas Amouyal leads a mid-hike drawing session at Wadi Numeira, near the Dead Sea. - Courtesy: Parastoo Anoushahpour

While we spent the majority of the time moving, built into the walk’s schedule were stretches of time where the group would be stationed in one location — most notably were our five days in Wadi Rum and the full week on the Red Sea in Egypt. When we arrived in Sinai, we were largely relegated to a beach camp in Nuweiba, with few prospects for stepping outside. The increased security measures in the Sinai Peninsula meant that our walking routine was significantly interrupted — the security personnel that met us at the camp’s reception requested that we inform them should we decide to venture beyond its borders — for our safety, they said. We had no choice but to replace our hiking gear with bathing suits. That week, like most of us, French writer and musician Guillaume Ollendorff could be seen wandering back and forth between his hut and the shore, looking pensive, if not a little defeated by our collective beach-camp confinement. When he wasn’t swimming in the sea, Ollendorff used his recorder — its iconic furry, bright red wind muffler outstretched — to record its sounds, adding them to a broad collection of audio material he collected on the walk.

It was on the last day of the residency, in the entrance to one of the small beach huts in the camp, that I sat down with Touq, Ollendorff and Anoushahpour for a final reflection on the walk — and the last chance we had to throw questions at Touq. It was about an hour before sunset — the last we would share as a group. Elsewhere in the camp, a few members of our group were setting up for the closing party we would have later in the evening: slicing lemons for cocktails, putting together playlists and hopelessly sifting through hiking gear for creative outfits. Touq, Ollendorff, Anoushahpour and I poured ourselves coffees, and indulged in biscuits that I had stolen from Yvonne [Buchheim; a Cairo-based artist who has attended four out of the five Spring Sessions editions, as participant (2015 and 2018), facilitator (2016), and co-curator (2017)].

With the intention of capturing a fraction of the verbal exchange that unfolded over the course of the Spring Sessions residency, Mada Masr is publishing a series of conversations from the walk. The first was a chat between Spanish artist Asunción Molinos Gordo and Iraqi artist Rheim Alkadhi, and the second brought together Khasawneh and Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik in conversation. The exchange that follows, among Touq, Ollendorff, Anoushahpour and myself, is the third and final interview in the series.

Pictured here is the outcome from a multi-step drawing and writing workshop facilitated by Sara Elkamel, Thomas Amouyal, and Maki Suzuki. - Courtesy: Sara Elkamel

Guillaume Ollendorff: Toleen, why did you decide to change the shape of the residency this year? 

Toleen Touq: I was just thinking about this again yesterday. Initially, we thought, “Okay, we’ve been doing Spring Sessions for four years, in the same place, in Amman, and the city has consumed us.” The program was so entangled with our lives here. It was very contextual. Then we felt that we needed to explore something bigger, but we didn’t know what exactly. We thought it might add an entirely new dimension if we looked at the whole country instead of just the capital. And we wanted a group of people to join us on this journey — each with their own reasons to do so, of course. But the official reasoning was to walk, and explore our bodies as we walk through a landscape, instead of the way we were doing it before. I mean, we had incorporated walking experiences in all the previous years, but this time it happened on a much bigger scale — this year’s residency took walking as its central pillar.

Parastoo Anoushahpour: It sounds like another big shift was in the workings of the residency itself. For instance, you decided to leave out the original mentoring process and mentor-participant dynamic, right?

TT: Yes. We felt that we had also consumed the structure we had set up for the learning program. We learned a lot from it, and it was amazing, but it was time to take it a little bit further, and get rid of these specific roles or hierarchies.

PA: Do you feel different as an organizer this time than the years in Amman?

TT: Very different. I think the logistics of the trip also formed a whole new layer. We thought, “OK, we’ll just go for a walk.” And of course it was much more than that.

GO: But you must have had an idea it would be a bitch, right?

TT: Of course. But then when it actually happened, it was completely different. Still, I think as a collective, we worked really well together.

PA: By collective, do you mean the organizers, or everybody?

TT: No, as a group. I also think that because it was such a physical program, and because we were walking and experiencing so many things, it was difficult to clearly define roles or different parts of the program, like we had done in earlier Spring Sessions. We couldn’t say: Okay, this is a workshop, this person is this person’s mentor, you’re doing this project, etc. On the walk, everything was so jumbled up together.

GO: That’s what you wanted, right?

TT: I think so, yeah. I’m still trying to understand what happened, and which elements were intentional and which were unintentional. But definitely, at some point, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to conduct it as an art school in the same sense.

It’s also become so personal for me. The residency has been very much about the collective, yes, but it also became so introspective, because we’ve been spending so much time with our own thoughts. Even though we’re talking to each other all the time, I feel like I had never before spent so much time thinking on my own.

GO: I found it really well titled actually: “Wonder, wander” — that was exactly it.

PA: I didn’t know that walking makes you think more. It’s a wacky concept. And when you’re walking, your thoughts don’t wander. They’re very specific. A lot of people in the group noted this. You are in a very vast landscape most of the time, and you could potentially feel overwhelmed by it, but you’re still so focused — or at least, I was. So you’re fixated on the steps, the details, the sounds the stones make, who’s behind you, and how close they’re getting to you.

This creates a circle around yourself. And only when we were stopping to have tea or something, you would realize all of a sudden that we’re part of this group in the landscape. I really enjoyed this process of zooming in and zooming out. And a lot of it happened with sound, through overhearing people’s conversations. I listened to a lot of conversations other people were having, without feeling that I had to participate, and without feeling that I was doing something weird by walking behind them and listening to and thinking about what they were saying.

Spring Sessions participants push on to complete a 19 km walk, during the hike from the Dana Nature Reserve to Petra. - Courtesy: Sara Elkamel

TT: We were thinking about so many basic, elemental things, like the ground beneath us and the landscape around us, which was beautiful. But it was also very sensory. So as we walked, we were both thinking and feeling.

PA: At the same time, the frame, or context, of this whole thing was also present: We were walking across a country. From time to time I would come back to my senses and think: What the fuck are we doing? And why are we doing it? Why am I doing it? How are we ever going to go back to what we did before?

GO: Before joining, I thought that I would be thinking a lot about my work on the walk, but I didn’t end up doing that much.

TT: What were you thinking about?

GO: Which step I would have to take right now. Where is my left foot going to go? And sometimes: “Oh, the scenery looks beautiful, but you should focus on your next step.” Really concrete, simple things. Of course, I think the work was being infused somewhere in the background, and this experience will actually give it a real boost. But there were so many material things you had to think about. And then there was also the group dynamic, which gets between you and your own world.

PA: Yeah, I wasn’t able to think about my work that much either. But I did learn a lot about my motives for making work. Just asking why we were on this walk — and trying to understand people’s motives for being there — made me think about my own reasons, and about what we do as artists. The absolute privilege of doing this was also unbearable.

GO: Yes, I thought about the word privilege many times too.

PA: It’s been so present. This experiment was entirely based on privilege. It’s not guilt for me; I’m just trying to understand it, and to move past it, almost walk through it. And then trying to identify what can be done with this privilege. And there’s a lot that can be done, as we’ve seen. And part of dealing with it, for me, was thinking that if this residency really ends, I’d feel weird. I don’t feel like we need to produce a publication that lets people know what we did, because that’s not the point, but the challenge is how this gets translated. Because it will have to get translated into something. Something meaningful.

TT: Maybe if it’s translated within us and in our practice…

GO: Well, that final tarot card reading that we did in Nuweiba said that what comes next will be growth and blooming. I think it’s going to bloom, but it’s going to bloom in all our different practices in different ways. There were 30 people on the walk, maybe a bit more, and it’s going to bloom in 30 different ways. I have the sense that it’s giving a lot to people.

TT: For me, one of the things that keeps me going with Spring Sessions is to not have things be so defined and to not have these clear-cut outcomes. I very often struggle to explain what we do. It’s not so tangible. And I think it’s all these intangibles that are more interesting.

One of the images created for the Spring Sessions 2018 open call. - Courtesy: Melika Quteishat and Hussam Hasan

Sara Elkamel: I feel like we’ve all been asking ourselves why we’re doing this. What answers did you come up with during the walk?

PA: I feel like I’m still not able to fully digest what happened, but along the way, something clicked that made sense to me. And it was in the attitude of the people and the organizers around art production. This was a place where most of the time, apart from some very few exceptions, people were not delusional about art production and its impact. In the context I had been working in, in Toronto, or London, or New York, I was completely fed up with this discourse of art as activism or art that can provide solutions to issues that are very defined and very black-and-white.

And also, the residency took place in the context of the Middle East, and I felt, for the first time ever, that we [as artists of color] were the majority. It still took me maybe a week or two to feel comfortable. I was shocked, thinking, “Wow, I don’t have to perform anything. I don’t have to perform the exotic one, I don’t have to perform the trying-not-to-be-the-exotic one, I don’t have to have stories that shock or amuse people.” It was really jarring. I was part of the majority. I just did my shit. It was amazing. The amount of mental space it gave me was unbelievable.

TT: Guillaume, what about you? Why do you think you did this?

GO: Well, in the past five, six years, I’ve been going to write in a place called Performing Arts Forum in France. It’s an old convent that an old Dutch anarchist bought, and you can go there for a month, a week, or a day, whatever. You rent a room for almost nothing, and the one thing they ask you to do is to work — on whatever you’re working on. And since I started going there, I have begun to write fiction, which I hadn’t done before. And I realized I was really toying with the idea of communalism, which you could call communal life; creating communities that are not your family, that are not the state, that are not even the village community. Lots of people talk about this. Anyway, my heart beats for this idea of communism, in this very broad sense.

So when Toleen proposed this residency to me, I was finishing up my novel — which talks about communalism in some very different and twisted way — and I was like “Wow,  this residency is just an extension of it.” So I was here to test the communal experience. This was really my priority.

I made a lot of Orientalist jokes during this trip, because I like the exoticism of it too. I’m not hiding that. But my main goal was being in a group and seeing what the group dynamic would do to me, what it would to do itself.

Guillaume Ollendorff records audio during the hike from Dana to Petra. - Courtesy: Thomas Amouyal

SEK: And what did you learn about yourself in this communal way of living?

GO: I learned it was easier than I thought.

PA: Me too.

GO: Let’s imagine a science-fiction situation, where we’re stuck together for five years. Maybe it would be harder. But when it’s ephemeral like this, it works. Everybody finds solutions. It was also interesting that we had this continuous engagement. You walk, you’re tired, and then you have to listen to artist presentations at night, when you’re half-asleep. And even that was really good actually.

I remember I was saying, when we were at the Mohamed and Mahera Abu Ghazaleh Foundation, that one of the counter-arguments to socialism and communism is that the only time it worked was during war. The commune in Paris [in 1871], which worked for three to six months and was a real anarchist government, worked because there was a war and you had to hold a gun and people had to organize themselves. And it’s the same for the Kurdish people, for example. People say, “Yeah, it works, but stop the war and you will see it will dissolve, because people will want to make money and they will prey on each other.” Which is probably a good point — and, actually, one of the points of communalism is to organize yourselves in a way that constantly creates new challenges, new goals. And this experience, the wandering thing, the caravan thing, is quite an amazing trick.

TT: I think it also goes back to the idea of the pilgrimage, and the intention behind it. Everybody is here because they wanted to be here, or they wanted to find an answer, or they wanted to reach a destination. Sara, why did you do this?

SEK: I’ve been hearing about Spring Sessions for a while, and I heard it was “life-changing” for many people. It sounded like a very affirming and awakening experience. So I thought: I want some of that. Especially because I’m at a point where I’m floating, after quitting a full-time journalism job, and trying to figure out what comes next. Floating is cool, but I’m looking for rigor, and I’m looking for building something, and having a practice, and learning what a practice really is. So I guess I was hoping that this experience would alert me to an interest that I want to pursue above all else, and dive deeper into. But I can’t say I’ve found that.

But I think, just walking and being so immersed in my own body has shown me a glimpse of this rigor, and a glimpse of what it means to have a body and to have a mind, and what it means to not understand the relationship between them at all times. Fear is something that I’ve experienced so much on this walk, and something I’ve experienced in my daily life for as long as I remember. But on the walk, constantly moving, and sometimes moving through dangerous terrain, I very often felt like my mind was working against my body. There was the landscape, but then there were images of me falling, and images of me breaking, and images of my parents in tears. Images, images that my mind was creating almost all the time, like a parallel soundtrack to the walk. And at first, I really struggled with it, and then I said “Okay, if this fear is something that’s present for me, then it’s present for me. I can’t deal with all of it right now.” Which is also another thing that walking teaches you. There’s a step that you take, but the step won’t get you all the way there. But it will just get you somewhere different, and probably somewhere closer.

Spring Sessions participants Parastoo Anoushahpour and Gian Spina rest during a hectic 23 km walk in Ajloun, northern Jordan. - Courtesy: Sara Elkamel

GO: I have to admit I’ve been thinking about the past quite a lot here. I’m going to be intimate here, but my mom died in a mountaineering accident, and I haven’t attempted to climb a mountain since then. So I have occasionally thought of my potential falling, but I have thought of her falling all the time. And this has been quite an experience too. And actually, I didn’t want to write anything about this trip. I refused to take notes. I thought, “Okay, this is a break from the writing process.” But now I think I’m going to write about that.

TT: I don’t think I was ever as immersed into any kind of experience like I’ve been over the past 45 days. Everything got mixed-up together — work, life, being. And we also experienced this incredible slowing down of time.

PA: We had no idea what day of the week it was.

TT: No idea! And an hour would feel like three, or a day would feel like three days. And at the same time, we’re now having this conversation on the last day, and it’s all over so quickly. Noura [Al Khasawneh] and I are still having the same conversations we had on the first day. We keep looking at each other and saying. “This is crazy! What’s happening? What are we doing?!”

Thomas Amouyal: Hi. How are you?

TT: Good, we’re recording a conversation. How are the bar preparations going?

TA: It’s done! The lemons are already cut, the ice is melted, everything is done.

[Everyone laughs]

PA: Oh, done as in gone?

TA: No, I will start to do it, but I’m hungry.

TT: It’ll be a while before we eat.

TA: Okay. See you!

GO: Toleen, was there one thing you wanted to achieve this year that you didn’t?

TT: I’m really happy with how it turned out. I like that it developed on its own.

GO: It was self-curating.

TT: Yes, and I think that was good. It was so hard to imagine what was going to happen. It was too big. That’s why I think there was a constant element of surprise, which was beautiful. If you think of the number of people we interacted with — for me, that was really unforeseen, the number of intimate moments we had with such a big and diverse group of people. They were an integral part of the program.

And I’m happy that it wasn’t so production-focused. That’s why I’m also excited about the future — to see what comes out of it, in different ways, from everybody involved. And I’m excited to see what it’s going to do for me, how it’s going to transform my work, and what this means for the future of Spring Sessions. Because it was already obvious from this year that it’s not going to stay in the same form — that’s why we did all this.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The title of this piece, “Time spills upward and downward, and all around,” comes from an unpublished essay by Rheim Alkadhi, titled “Trans Land, a Duration.”

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Sara Elkamel