Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Beirut: A city to live through

Going there

Project proposal / March 2007

''The current revolution of interactive transmissions is

promoting an alteration of urban

environment. "Images" win over the "things" they are said to represent:

the city of the past slowly becomes a paradoxical agglomeration in which relations of immediate

proximity give way to interrelations over distances.”

Paul Virilio, “The third interval: a critical transition in re-thinking technologies

Beirut today is undergoing a brutal spatial alternation instigated by political and sectarian motives, discernible in mass demonstrations and public upheaval. The city has failed, during the so-called ‘period of peace’ or the Lebanese ‘cold war’ which began in 1992 as the cold war ended, to create for itself a certain logic of sane mobility that was partially due to a collective behavior of hasty and disconnected transportation patterns. The false, spurious interactivity of the city is a commotion marked by a sense of disorientation and catastrophic ruptures that have led to fragmented, demographic control-zones.

This crippled mobility and ever-present civil war memories were the ground for various ‘insane’ social behaviors. The demography of the city and its suburbs is moving ever more towards cleansed, social subgroups creating closed, sect-pure, geographic entities around diverse ‘center/s’ of the city, with public spaces becoming hard to find. New power oases have emerged around the city and signs of clashes are rising on the surface.

This situation has manifested itself in several violent incidents: The first was a demonstration against the Danish embassy on Feb 5th 2006, which is situated in Ashrafieh, a ‘Christian’ area of Beirut. This incident proved an indicator of the level of congestion that lies beneath the surface, especially as extremist ‘Sunnis’ violently destroyed public and private property. Another incident occurred three months later. On May 3rd 2006, ‘Shiite’ groups demonstrated in the same area against the poking fun at, or so-called humiliation, of the Hizbollah leader, Nasrallah, on a local TV show. Two subsequent incidents, on Jan 23rd and 25th 2007, took place in the form of clashes between the supporters of the ‘opposition’, among which were ‘Shiites’ and ‘Maronite Christians’, and the ‘loyalists’ composed mainly of ‘Sunnis’ and other political arms of the ‘Maronite Christian’ sect. These violent incidents occurred mostly in suburban areas, both Christian and Muslim, and escalated around the country before they edged towards the fringes of the city, and then the center.

Karen Piper wrote in “Cartographic Fictions”, “… the history of cartography has been a history of coding the enemy, making a ‘them’ and ‘us’ that can be defined with a clear border. It has been a history of pushing ‘them’ out of territory that is considered ‘ours’ denying their existence, deleting their maps, drawing lines in the sand. But the enemy has always been us, and so the project has been destined to fail, forced to reinvent itself again and again in search of better and more elaborate methods of detection”. Based on this ‘cartographic’ understanding, the project will attempt to re-map Beirut city – a social cartographic process to understand the complexity of the city, a trial to claim some of the public sphere.

I will be using directional maps of the type usually found on brochures and flyers in the purpose of re-constructing the city from fragments. These maps are a metaphor of a mandatory need of the Beiruties to be guided in their own city, the need for a preset and defined trajectory in the maze of different territories. The project will focus on the gaps that remain between the fragments in a way to fit the incidents mentioned previously within those gaps, along with other fictional stories, which narrate the city from within such blank areas of a lost public space; A trial not to represent the city as such, but to stress the impossibility of representation or as Tony Chakar wrote “… a representation of Beirut that takes into account the complexity of the city and, hopefully, that would point out the impossibility of taking a 'snapshot' of it, or of dwelling in it. Beirut – or at least some of it – transforms its citizens into permanent tourists, into urban nomadic masses that are always ready to perform in a spectacle that is yet to see the light. The status of performing tourists makes dwelling impossiblewhy did they choose to float (…)? The answer might seem simple, but it isn't: it was the war. But not the violence of the war, rather the war as a symbol of a world coming to an end and the beginning of a new era”.

The project will act as a historical timeline of the city simulating a parallel narration of the societal based on a Frankensteinist collection of events, incidents and fictional stories. Visually, it will appear as a complex labyrinth of connected/disrupted groups of directional maps and insane trajectories that might, or might not, ‘direct’ to pre-defined places were time and distances overlap to produce a complex urban vernacular.

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