Home Works IV

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Beirut
Home Works IV
Various venues
April 12-20, 2008

“Homework” has always implied taking home exercises or preparation for lessons of the following day. Not only does homework present the possibility of personal reflection — which, in turn, can be brought back to the classroom as material for dialogue and debate — it is also a preparatory exercise in the development of the public sphere. But what if there is work to be done, but home is no longer a given because one’s house, city, or country has been occupied or forcibly taken away? What does “homework” mean for an exile? The condition of exile remains all too familiar in our time — even while national origin and locality have long since been argued away as insufficient to make sense of a culture or of people’s individual lives. Home has become mobile, provisional, a place inhabited but unsettled, less than secure. Seen from this perspective, we might say that for those who are forced to make a foreign place their home or, conversely, whose homeland is occupied, homework is filled with checkpoints, detours, and the necessity of thinking outside the comfort of habit. The character of everyday discourse — in language and phrases, in the ways and gestures of the body, in the memories embedded in objects or in stories recounted — embodies the anguish that surrounds the concept of home and occupancy.

Six years ago the nonprofit organization Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) began a project entitled ’Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices’. Under the direction of Christine Tohmé, the forum was proposed as a space for dialogue devoted to the Middle East and its diaspora. Remarking on the title, the organizers have written that it “suggests an intertwining of public and private spheres, the outside world of work and the inside space of home. In referring to the exercises, lessons and research problems worked out by students repetitively and in solitude, Home Works implies a process of internal excavation, digging and burrowing deeper while constructing and accumulating new practices.“ The metaphor is telling, recalling Freud“s fascination with archaeology as analogous to the work of psychoanalysis, invoking ruins like Pompeii, whose former inhabitants, long since dead, still cast their long shadows across the streets and houses in which they once lived. But the metaphor goes further to suggest the work of transformation, the possibility that through this ceaseless work of unearthing, one may find a provisional way forward.

The fourth iteration of Home Works took place this past April. Forum IV was organized, as it has been on each occasion, around nine days of lectures and panels, live performances, daily film and video screenings, exhibitions, and publications. Participants and audiences hailed from Lebanon, the Middle East, and the Maghreb, along with other parts of the world. Artists including Emily Jacir, Khalil Rabah, and Michael Rakowitz participated in the exhibition program. Videos and panels represented participants and subjects from across the Middle East, and the program of talks featured Tony Chakar, Tom Keenan, Elias Sanbar, and Brian Holmes. Held primarily at Masrah al-Madina theater on Hamra Street, this gathering unfolded as an extraordinary collective immersion in the voices and sounds of those involved, exploring points of continuity and dissonance. It was, if you will, an attempt to seek to provide a provisional home away from home in which one could identify the lessons of the day.

In phrasing “disaster, catastrophe, [and] recomposing desire and sex practices” as the thematic axes of this year’s event, the organizers had already borne witness to the difficulty of speaking beyond the givens, disaster and catastrophe. It was as if the very phrasing, the spacing between each term as the phrase awkwardly moved forward to “desire and sex practices,” acknowledged the difficulty of the endeavor. There was no straight line here, and yet it suggested again the idea of archaeology as analogous to the work of psychoanalysis and the work of the unconscious. The proposed themes were redolent of a shifting of terms, not simply from that of the impossibility of loss to one of lack, but more an appeal to “recompose” what Maurice Blanchot has called the “unavowable community.” This is not a space of mourning or melancholy but rather a form of inter- subjectivity, a convalescence that implies hospitality, a way of welcoming the stranger in one’s midst — as much to accommodate the absent other in one’s home as to live with the dead.

Fittingly, Rabih Mroué“s How Nancy Wished That Everything Was An April Fool’s Joke touched upon this very presence of the dead. Written by Mroué and Fadi Toufic, the play which was performed twice over the course of the forum“revolves around four protagonists from the Lebanese civil war who recount stories of how they died and eventually were resurrected as heroes through their realignment with and appropriation by various political parties. The lives of the city, the homes of its inhabitants, are inhabited by the dead. To go back, then, is not a point of arrival but of departure, the lessons to be taken.

To speak of homework is to speak of the work to be done now. Six years have passed since the first Homeworks: to live in Lebanon now is both experience more of the same, yet different. There is a fragility to which writers, philosophers, artists, and filmmakers come, this city in which to gather and congregate. Together they live in an estranged destitute time bathed in the glow of persistent after-images cloaked in the substance of the real as they occupy and circulate within the public realm as much as the privacy of one’s home. This is a world of smoke and mirrors in which one lives a present time exorbitant unto itself — an anxious world, waiting, suffocating, seeking to trace the lineaments of a way forward.

The forum took place after a hiatus of two and half years, a hiatus caused by another war with Israel. (The third forum had also been postponed, due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the public protests that ensued.) No timetable insures its arrival, no calendar guarantees its occurrence. Home Works happens when it can. It happens in between time, an event measured by the unpredictable threat of occupation through which, as much as against which, it has been forced to define itself.

When the forum does happen, it is always underwritten by a sense of provisionality — a space in time seized as precious, however tentative it may be. Only two weeks after the forum ended, the city and country again was at war with itself. Walter Benjamin once remarked that we live in a state of permanent exception, not one of rule. In Ashkal Alwan’s March 2008 newsletter, the editors observed: “At this point ‘Home Works Forum has (we think) settled into a regular schedule of regular disruptions. This unpredictable dynamic has become a rhythm, a paradoxical routine.”