Lebanon, January 1992, months after the city is open and traversing from East to West is made possible again (at least for us more distant from the recent war and the still remote occupation in the South) without fear of kidnapping or worse. Driving around the city, the slightly battered Fiat 128 looking somewhat the worse for wear, silver of sorts but covered in dust from years in the garage, makes its way hesitantly down one of the arteries leading into the core of Beirut, or one of the cores as there are many centres here—old, new, destroyed, demolished, rebuilt—each act of construction part and parcel of a previous one of destruction. Walid drives, I shoot, video, gazing through the camera at the passing layers of modern and ancient architecture, using it like an appendage, it inhales inadequate images of people, place, sites of historical and social signification, the fruit vendors, the shattered lives being pieced back together, and more tattered buildings and ruins upon ruins.
Posters of her are everywhere: lamp posts, shop windows, private homes. 2 She is framed on one side, the wounded Lahad on the other, floating on a pinkish background. 3 The photograph on the right is from 1988, the year Soha attempted to assassinate the guy, came close, close enough to be an instant heroine, but not close enough to kill him. She was thrown into the ‘living’ hell hole of Khiam. Those who referred to it as a prison knew nothing about it, others who knew and would raise troubling references referred to it as a concentration camp, colloquially here (or there) it was called something more benign: a detention centre.
Before coming to Lebanon and during the year there, the occupation of the South was a predominant concern in our minds. I decided to focus one of the videotapes (Up to the South…) on this occupation, 4 the terms of its representation inherent in the discourse surrounding the issues, (i.e. terrorism, 5 post-colonialism, occupation, collaboration, experts, spokespeople, symbols, resistance, the land), and the history and structure of the documentary genre in regards to the representation of other cultures by the West in documentary, ethnography and anthropological practice and the predicament involved from the perspective of the subjects viewed and the practitioners practicing. Up to the South… challenged traditional documentary formats by positing representation itself as a politicized practice. We worked with the material and our experiences of living and working in Lebanon with an insistence on a visible resistance to the acts of aggression that documentary partakes in and the violence that is inherent in its means. The videotape developed a mediating ‘language’ of transposed experience in the guise of a ‘_reluctant documentary.’_ These methodologies are refined and developed further in some of the untitled videotapes which incorporate them in their own strategies and means. 6
1998: I am invited to participate in an exhibition that will take place at The Canadian Museum of Civilization. 7 The theme is something to do with immigration. It seems a dry concept with an arbitrariness that has an opportunistic ring to it in the Canadian political climate and its history of turning back asylum seekers, an escalation of closed borders (to people, not goods), and a less than repressed racism. There is also a renewed orientalism at play, or a neo-orientalism. It is increasingly more fashionable to have a token show with an Arab or Middle-Eastern theme, one that avoids the complexities of subjectivity and identity outside of an indexical vein. I initially reject participation in the exhibition. A short time passes then with continued requests from the curator I contemplate it more and see the opportunity to engage with a public outside of the normative gallery or art museum mold, and the potential for an experiment in community association. From the proposed theme of immigration I decide to do a project dealing with concepts of movement (where it is permitted/restricted, desired or forced) in terms of specific histories, looking at something that is common to all of our lives and at the base of this entity called globalization. Subsequently I moved into considerations of transition, however we have devalued this term/position as if it is going nowhere. The end, in and out of sight, or what it is we are coming to, are usually given utmost importance but not the inbetweenness. This led me to focus on the notion of interstitiality, the interstitial subject and site, and the beginning of untitled.
March 24, 1999: the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) begins. I have been thinking a lot about interstitiality. Towards the end of summer I foresee that I will have a break between exhibitions in Vienna and Brussels. I decide to take a trip from the top of the FRY to the bottom with enough time to visit the capital cities of each soon to be, once more, new republic. I intend to look at/record sites of emigration, places that people had left or were currently leaving from or immigrating to, and meet people that were living and/or theorizing these threads of movement and change in trans/cross/intra-cultural settings. On my way to Vienna I stop off in New York and meet up and tape an architect from Belgrade, Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Ammiel Alcalay who discusses the Balkan region he knows so well, and Ella Shohat who speaks about the colonization of the Americas, neo-colonial politics of the Middle East and the limits of an identity based politics. In Vienna, I tape exiles from the FRY, activists, artists, and the writer/theoretician Boris Buden. Finally, I am on the train heading to Ljubljana, Slovenia, with subsequent stops in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Skopje. I offer to tape in any language but generally the preferred language of address is English. The conversations open a space for the contemplation of the present, the recent and further past, and implications for the future. We circulate around life during Tito, after Tito, what is far and still remains close, and the current reign of Milosevic and what will or may be coming. The subjects speak through the camera, through me, to some imaginary audience—western, somewhere else—or speak to formulate and send off missives, inquiries, and speculations on what has happened. I have space to pause in the evenings and the between times finding routes and transportation from person to city to new encounters. I tape these moments as well, the foggy indeterminate landscapes, the jotting of notes while the bus bounces up and down, the passing through check points of new, old, and reformulated borders. Time and space stretch out for moments, clarity is fleeting, elusive but not impossible. The juxtaposition of speakers stimulates patterns of thought, utterances of something that this might become. Points of focus start to emerge through the cycles and repetition. 8
Brussels a few days later, Mireille phones, she tells me there is an exhibition in Paris of artworks from Khiam detainees and other Israeli detention centres, objects that were smuggled out for 10 years and later brought out when the Red Cross was eventually permitted to visit in 1995; delicate carvings of soap, prayer beads and chess sets out of olive pits, embroideries from threads pulled from their clothes, fragile sculptures assembled from all kinds of scrounged materials, and drawings made with burnt wood. These are tentative objects, clandestine cravings imbued with hope and faith signifying more strength than that which holds them together. Mireille asks me to come and screen Up to the South… at the gallery, she says Soha has been released months earlier and that after the screening Rabab (one of the former detainees in the tape) and Soha could speak about the ongoing detentions in Khiam and Israel. It’s a great surprise to find that Soha was released—I had no prior knowledge that this was even close to being achieved. I make a deal with Mireille that if she comes to my opening we’ll discuss what can be done—it could be the rare closing of a circle that started in 1992 with the work in the south. Mireille arrives, she pulls me aside at the opening to discretely mention that after the 1995 IMA screening of Up to the South… she instigated the forming of a committee to free Soha and had worked to solicit world wide support, newspaper ads in the major journals in Paris, and help from activists and human rights lawyers in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Somehow the tape was complicit, adding to the momentum of the movement, as a catalyst for what was undoubtedly already emerging.
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About the Author
Jayce Salloum has been working in installation, photography, new media, and video since 1975, as well as curating exhibitions, conducting workshops and coordinating cultural events. His work takes place in a variety of contexts, critically engaging itself in the representation of cultural/social/political manifestations and other cultures.