Beirut Intersections: networks as an engine for change

Beirut IETM Satellite (c) Jens Bjerregaard

Between 6 and 9 October, Flanders Arts Institute, together with a substantial delegation of artists and arts organisations from Flanders and Brussels, took part in the IETM Satellite Meeting in Beirut. A Satellite Meeting is a smaller gathering of the IETM network, each time with a focus on a specific theme and/or region. The purpose of this edition was especially to build bridges between organisations from Europe and those from the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).

Dit artikel is enkel beschikbaar in het Engels.

You get a different, more human point of view when you give artists the chance to travel, to work together and to share their view on society with a public.

Joris Janssens

Since, in terms of its international operations, Flanders Arts Institute wishes to intensify exchanges with the MENA region, the meeting was an ideal opportunity to acquire, through the debates, presentations, discussions and working visits, greater insight into artistic, organisational and cultural-policy developments and possible partnerships. What local factors play a role in the region? What drives artists and cultural workers in their work in sometimes difficult circumstances? What possible common ground is there for a future collaboration between Flanders Arts Institute and local partners?

The central theme of the meeting was ‘freedom of expression’. Sub-sessions treated this and other forms of freedom as well as developments in the field of of cultural policy, the funding of art, stereotypical representations and the ‘decolonisation’ of art, art and the recovery of the public space, art in conflict areas, the role of cultural networks, and mobility. Panels were put together for all these issues, with half of the speakers coming from Europe and half from the MENA region.

Cultural policy in the region

Cultural policy in the MENA region proved to be a tricky question. In very many countries there is hardly a policy framework, let alone a budget, for art and culture. In Beirut it is only in 2008 that a ministry for culture emerged with its own administration. But nothing has been done since then in terms of a strategic framework. There are hardly any budgets either. Decisions happen on the basis of chance and/or connections. But in the region this type of indifference is a relatively positive situation. If means are being mobilised for art and culture in a country like Egypt, then it is for a completely negative cultural policy, which is escalating moreover: while it used to involve the banning of events, today artists and culture workers are being imprisoned.

When it comes to supporting artistic and cultural projects, the role of national authorities should not be overestimated, to put it mildly. Not much improvement should be expected in the short term. The question as to whether much good is to be expected from urban policy and local authorities remained unanswered during the meeting. This theme was largely left untouched during the Satellite Meeting. This appears to have been a missed opportunity, precisely because many of the proposed artistic projects either dealt with local issues or involved local communities in an interactive manner.

At the same time, the meeting explicitly concerned the role of donors’: private investors and foreign cultural institutions. An interesting development is the emergence of an intermediary level. An organisation like Al Mawred mediates between various investors (companies, foreign authorities and institutes) and the art scene(s) in the broader region, via matchmaking and redistribution. That presents both opportunities and limitations. While such an organisation can certainly play a role in the matchmaking between artists and funders, there is still a certain suspicion as to the potential monopolistic position of such intermediaries. It would be ideal if there was a range of institutions which one could turn to for the funding of artistic projects.

Both here and in the Arab region, artists and activists are setting to work with this starting point, and an exchange of experiences or strategies could be particularly useful and instructive.

Freedom of expression and the loss of the public

The picture that emerged during the meeting about freedom of expression and censorship was highly ambivalent. If we look at the situation in Lebanon, then there is certainly talk of censorship. But it is not absolute. A pragmatic approach prevails. In principle, the state oversees what can be said or shown (in the context of art projects). But what is allowed or not or is not clear beforehand, and there is certainly room for negotiation. To a certain extent, such a negotiation can happen on the basis of content-related arguments, but to a much larger extent it has to do with personal connections and power relations.

We also saw that artists and cultural workers are not too concerned by censorship and that, even in public places like a theatre or a gallery, a lot can be said. Pragmatism prevails. There were some people who claimed that it was not interesting for the region to talk about freedom of expression, especially in an international context, because this only leads to stereotyping, which immediately places artists from the region into the role of victim. It thus seems opportune to focus on a shared interest in themes that are on the agenda here in Europe and in the MENA region.

From that perspective, the discussion on the recovery of the public space – through collaboration between artists and activists – was particularly pertinent. Beirut is a city where the cityscape clearly shows that there is no tradition of urban development. There are hardly any squares or parks, there is little public space for publicness or communality. The existing public space has increasingly been privatised since the end of the civil war in 1990. The biggest public park was, until recently, closed for the general public for safety reasons. Artists find this an urgent question and are for instance also involved in actions to prevent the last piece of publicly accessible beach in the north of Beirut from being privatised. Here too, in Europe, the loss of public space is a hot topic. The context is very different, but both here and in the Arab region, artists and activists are setting to work with this starting point, and an exchange of experiences or strategies could be particularly useful and instructive.

What possible common ground is there for a future collaboration between Flanders Arts Institute and local partners?

Networks as an engine of change

That we share other themes also appeared during and after the panel on cultural networks, which I was sitting on. I spoke about the development of networks in the performing arts in Europe since the 1980s until today, what networking has brought us in that time and what challenges we face today. In short: networking internationally has brought our sector a lot, both in the past and today. Networks in Europe have certainly been a driver of growth since the 1980s. They stimulated the exchange of knowledge and facilitated co-production. The international networking and recognition also ensured that arguments could be put forward in our own country for the development of a policy (and of means) for contemporary performing arts. But today the pressure is increasing. National governments in many European countries are pulling back. Within arts organisations, the pressure is growing on the budgets. To be able to maintain a similar level of production, it is necessary to mobilise an increasingly large network of (increasingly vulnerable) partners.

In short, growth has reached a limit. At the same time, the seeds of change are also perceptible. A lot of artists and organisations are rethinking their practice, and in the current crisis situation it is absolutely necessary to organise on an international level the exchange of knowledge about the possible work models of the future, on the basis of this type of experience. And that we also give artists the chance to share their experiences in networks. That requires a new mindset. The question is namely whether networks, which in the past were a driver of growth, could now possibly become a driver of changeof transformation.

This point of view caught on during the meeting, with people from the MENA region too. It is precisely because of the existing policy vacuum that self-organisation is a theme here too and you see that initiatives taken by artists and curators are counting on the development of new work models and new relations with communities and the public space. Soufiane Ouissi spoke during the same networking session, giving an account of Dream City, a biennale about art in the public space in Tunis. This project is now properly networked in Flanders. Soufiane is engaged in talks with partners from Flanders and Brussels about co-production and presentation. Thomas Bellinck and Jozef Wouters are collaborating on the 2017 edition of Dream City.

In short, here too there is a shared interest. While this sort of connection is already taking place today, Flanders Arts Institute could play an important role, through small but targeted impulses, in reinforcing these types of bridges and connections between artists. This could involve supporting mobility. This is an important precondition to enable exchanges between artists. But it can certainly also be about the documentation of processes and the exchange of knowledge with the sector and the authorities. This type of initiative is not always as visible for the cultural policy and the sector in Flanders and Brussels.

Growth has reached a limit. At the same time, the seeds of change are also perceptible.

Beyond the stereotypes

This type of exchange is particularly urgent in the current social context. The conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis have made the region particularly prominent in the media, but in a very selective and reductive manner. In Western media, refugees are anonymous victims. Their portrayal in the region itself is very different, more human. You read about a rescue worker in Aleppo who, after a raid, pulled his son out from under the rubble. You read about the resilience of arak distillers who refuse to let their production suffer, even though the war in Aleppo makes the import of anise more difficult (“We’re used to the concept of war”). You read about an exhibition in Damascus featuring work left behind by Syrian artists who have fled to Europe. In our newspapers you don’t hear anything about the follow-up to the disaster involving the 71 dead refugees who were found in August 2015 in a lorry along the Austrian motorway. You have to read the paper in Beirut to learn that the Austrian authorities turned down the request made by the families of the victims to open an inquest. Their request was redirected towards Hungary, where the lorry came from.

You get a different, more human point of view when you give artists the chance to travel, to work together and to share their view on society with a public. Art can be a platform where individual, human views on what is happening in the world can become visible. For that reason it is important that we pay attention to refugee artists here and that a concrete reception policy is developed to give them a place in the arts landscape in Flanders and Brussels. For a lasting collaboration between Flanders and the MENA region it is crucial that we also develop another perspective at the same time. An exclusive focus on the refugee crisis threatens to place artists in the role of victim. That may reduce them to stereotypes and such a depiction is no basis for a balanced conversation on the grounds of shared interests. The experience during the IETM Satellite Meeting in Beirut teaches us that they are in fact present: the fact that cultural policy at a national level is under pressure throughout the Euro-Mediterranean region, that there is (economic) pressure everywhere on existing practices, that artists are busy rethinking existing work models and are looking for new relations at the local level especially, for instance by developing other relations with the public and by exploring the public sphere. For Flanders Arts Institute it is now a question of creating platforms for that exchange, where we can engage in discussions on this type of theme in a balanced manner and where we can work together. Via shared interests and perspectives, the differences in context will come into focus again naturally, but in an unsuspected way, beyond stereotypes.

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