#YOU CAN CHECK OUT ANY TIME
This essay was originally posted on my personal city-themed blog in November 2015. I have since met the artist's ex, which adds a whole other scale and dimension to this story, looking back.
With apologies to Suhail Malik for totally ripping off his argument.
Much has happened in Lebanon and around the world that I and many of my friends have attempted to process, comment on, and eventually file away under various taxonomies of hope, jubilation and sorrow. Our inboxes are overflowing, and every day we urge ourselves to respond as we watch more things trickle in. More news to comprehend, more fears to swallow, more statements to make—relentlessly, on and on, like slow drip water torture.
Under such circumstances, saying anything seems inappropriate. Why this? Why now? Any response to any stimulus will summon up a thousand and one 'whataboutists' thirsty for blood. So we calibrate what we want to say according to the terms of our imagined inquisitors. We hedge our claims in apologetic preambles, or let our hesitation engulf us in silence.
This is it. Here we are. Waves of protests crashing against rocks of state repression. Rivers of garbage feeding into rivers of tears. The murky tides of intolerance rushing into our most sacred of spaces, steadily drowning us all in the same dark water while frightened mammals shore up the borders with futile bags of sand. And here I am, on this dinghy, taking time out in the midst of the deluge to comment on one lone stick in the mud.
No. What are you doing?!? Habal.
I'm not alone. For one reason or another, many people in Beirut have reacted to what one artist has done to the Holiday Inn Hotel. Some have wondered how such an intervention could have been authorized. Many others have fixated on the ugliness of the work, attacking the artist's credentials or generally deflating the work's claim to 'art.' Most have insisted on the inappropriateness of 'doodling' on one of Beirut's few de facto memorials of war, using terms like 'desecration' and 'disfigurement.'
I have found the aggressive tone of much of this debate quite alarming and problematic, with comments bordering on what many of these same people would call "cultural terrorism" when decrying the illiberal views of certain 'Others' among us. Still, all of these reactions point to one core problem: post-war Beirut has not developed a collective means of working through its traumatic past. There is no shared space from which to decide on how best to memorialise certain events. There is no right to access sites of significance, let alone decide on what that significance is or should be. This is a problem that casts a shadow over any expression or intervention in the public sphere.
Post-war Beirut has developed, instead, a general sense of value attached to what remains of the war: the Holiday Inn, the 'Egg,' the Murr Tower—we defend these like mother bears because they seem so brutally obvious in their importance for any hope for self-coherence. In a fragmented country with too many sovereigns, these objects seem like our only points of reference to form a common understanding of our recent past. We cling to them like reactionaries because everything else is in flux. Cultural heritage, public space, civic rights—none of these are sacred, so we build symbolic shrines around our urban wounds, because at least that is something we can control and share in common.
What PotatoNOSE did is annoying mostly because it's unfair. His intervention feels like yet more violence to the idea of the city as a shared and open space. By turning his indiscretion into a desecration, the public reaction to his work says less about his chosen theme or mode of expression, and more about a common sense of voicelessness (and helplessness) in this city we call ours.
Are we to remain hesitant? Can we speak at all if we cannot speak in unison? Must our proposals remain fantasies, and what do our fantasies owe the past? More crucially, which past are we indebted to? It's hard to answer these questions when the terms of the debate seem so atomized. But let's use PotatoNOSE's intervention, and the almost unanimously negative reaction it provoked (among those who generally tend to be his target audience) as a starting point: Let's say there's some statement in his doodling, a kind of intentional 'debasing' or 'sacrilege' going on that is deliberately trivializing and dismissive of all the intense emotions and romanticism surrounding this building. Then, it would have been preferable if he had pushed this provocation even further, by truly 'disfiguring' the building as a giant F.U. to our collective traumas. That would have made the outrage intentional. That would have been political.
Instead, his intervention feels like yet another desperate attempt at self-expression on a sinking ship. Funding comes and funding goes, but at no point does cultural production have any traction outside its circuits of spectatorship and valuation (the work of Dictaphone Group, with its close ties to critical research and urban activism, seems to be one brilliant exception to this rule). Some may argue that this is all that art should do: spark debate, open up the imagination, ask questions but never answer them, etc. But when the stage is this public; when the canvas is so intimately woven into a city's self-perception; when the artwork's reception is literally hanging on a thread, it is safe to say that we are right to expect a little more than laissez-faire mundanity in what our creatives create.
So here we are again, at the impasse. We are trapped between structural fragmentation and insular initiative. This leaves us with very few ways to respond: constant hesitation, collective mobilization, or unapologetic insurrection.
The first option is useless. The second entails working through our outrage and sense of helplessness to create spaces in common, nodes of partial coherence from which to think and act together. Artists! If you are offended by this man's unilateralism, pool together! Launch a campaign around your work. Make a statement. Draw a line in the sand.
The third option is also productive. The hard work of building collectives can push the horizon of change further and further into the future. PotatoNOSE's work shows us that, sometimes, symbolic violence can catalyze the public debate that wasn't happening. It's this silence that allowed him to do this questionable thing. And so I will also say: artists! If you defend this man's right to free expression, strike hard! Launch an assault with your work. Make a statement. Draw a line in the sand.
There are no edges to cultural politics, though the work of making borders is always part of that process. We saw this in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, in the many debates over who gets to be mourned and how. These controversies are useful, but it is important to acknowledge that they are always incomplete. Today we hear news of terror in Yola; will their pain be our own as well? Can something be said about all things?
It is important that we do not build up a moral high ground when arguing for better expression. White Wall was only slightly less insensitive to context than PotatoNOSE when it commissioned dozens of artists to beautify Beirut. Drawing on my own personal obsessions for a moment, I could also attack the collective outrage around this particular intervention with my own 'whataboutery,' given the mass silence over what I consider a worse 'desecration' in the Mar Mkhael Bus Station some years ago.
There will always be arguments over the meaning of particular spaces and objects, because meaning is always political. Art gets away with too much by hiding out in ambiguity while taking up meaning-full spaces. To use a disgusting concept of these dark times, what art needs, then, is to "eliminate the grayzone." Art has to become more political. We can amplify this politics through crude means in a cycle of unilateral projects and backlashes—a war of attrition, with no victors and no vanquished, but plenty of vigorous debate. Or we can do it more politely, though open workshops, participatory platforms and mass movements—a process of commoning, with slow progress and little output, but more inclusive results.
Whichever path we choose as groups and individuals, what is clear is that the sacred is an artifice of our making. Whether we want to glorify or smash our idols, we must do so deliberately. This is true for art, and it is true for other areas of life as well. Rights cannot simply be asserted. They must be fought for and won.
We can check-out of politics any time we like, but we can never actually leave.