On September 14, 2011, fourteen students walked into a building on the eastern edge of Beirut and found more than two thousand square meters’ worth of rehabilitated factory space to play with – theirs for the next eleven months. There was a library (very much a work in progress), a reading room, an editing suite, a so-called "dirt box" for painting and sculpture, classrooms, meeting rooms, screening rooms, and administrative offices still raised above the floor where furniture had been manufactured for decades. What passed for studio space was vast enough to loop wide figure eights on a bicycle, which several of the students promptly did. A large-scale sculpture made of metal piping by the artist Marwan Rechmaoui, leftover from an exhibition eighteen months earlier, rolled from one end of the room to another like a prop, or a catalyst for some as-yet-unformed idea.
All of the students were artists, and many of them had been exhibiting their work for several years. Most of them came from abroad – Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Italy, France or the United States – but in the days leading up to the informal inauguration of the space, none of them, not even the ones who had lived all of their lives in Lebanon, had any idea what, exactly, they were getting themselves into. They were – and still are – the guinea pigs, the first class to run through Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program, a tuition-free, non-degree granting experiment in arts education that is equal parts incubator, living archive, research hub, and production fund. Neither a residency program nor a standard-issue MFA, the program is nonetheless fundamentally pedagogic, with equal weight placed on studies and the studio. Everyone involved insists that it is not only the students, referred to more often as participants, but the staff, donors, advisors, visiting and resident professors who are the guinea pigs this year.
Ashkal Alwan, more formally known as the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, started out in 1994 without so much as an office. In the beginning, the non-profit organization – founded by Christine Tohme, Marwan Rechmaoui, Rania Tabbara, Mustapha (Zico) Yamout, and Leila Mroueh – was primarily concerned with bringing contemporary artworks into Beirut’s public spaces. Projects in the Sanayeh and Sioufi Gardens, on the Corniche and on Hamra Street, came about at a time when debates about the city’s postwar reconstruction were heated, intense and still relatively open ended – before the clearance and renewal of the city center by the private real-estate corporation Solidere had become a sad, immovable fact.
In 2002, Ashkal Alwan staged the first edition of the Home Works Forum on Cultural Practices, which effectively opened Beirut’s contemporary art scene to the world. "For long decades, we only translated into Arabic the books produced by the West that we deemed convenient," Tohme, Ashkal Alwan’s director, wrote at the time. "We only welcomed and read those who sympathized with our causes." The Home Works Forum was effectively an expression of gratitude to the far-flung intellectuals who broke down such presumptions and divisions, and an invitation for them to come, present their works, debate ideas, and help identify "the questions which need to be asked."
By the time the fifth iteration of the Home Works Forum took place, in April 2010, Ashkal Alwan had taken a small office, and then moved into a bigger office. It had weathered all manner of regional upheavals, from the second intifada in Palestine and the US-led invasion of Iraq to the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and everything that happened after. Tohme, at that point, was already two years into planning a more permanent entity – a school – that not only evidenced the fact that Ashkal Alwan had matured into a viable if still flexible institution (with a board of trustees, a board of curricular advisors, a staff, and a technical team), but also marked a crucial movement from urban to civic space.
The Home Workspace Program is in many ways a test. It has stepped into the breach of failed states, failed education systems, the failure of public services and the bankruptcy of long-held, endlessly undercut ideologies. At a time when it is easier to secure a visa for a student coming from Europe than for a student coming from Egypt (and despite the Arab world’s rhetorical coherence on the Palestinian cause, almost impossible for a student from Palestine), can the school be a center of learning and critical thinking that serves Beirut, Lebanon, and the Arab world, in that order? Can it become a laboratory not only for innovations in contemporary art practice but also for more meaningful experiences of citizenship and civic engagement? Can it mobilize a community to support it, long-term, year after year?
A few years ago, at the urging of the artist Tony Chakar, Christine Tohme attended a talk at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts by the architect Youssef Tohme (no relation). She was impressed, and, having secured the factory floor rent-free (a donation by the Philippe Jabre Association), she asked him if he would be up for revamping the space. At first he turned her down, saying he didn’t do interiors. Christine kept asking, and finally Youssef said yes, took the job pro bono, and then turned the questions around: What will happen there? What will the students do? What will they want the space for? For two years the questions went back and forth as Youssef designed and modified what now appears to have been an extremely minimal architectural intervention but is in fact an incredibly comprehensive overhaul, creating a highly modular environment where every detail seems to have been maximized to multiply the students’ possibilities, and to connect the space back to the street and the city beyond.
More that 200 applications came in for the first class. Emily Jacir, the first resident professor, developed her curriculum based on the proposals of the fourteen selected students. Her program focuses on key words and phases: insurrection, revolution, postcolonial legacies, sites of trauma, repressed histories, tricksters, troubadours, and strategies of dissent. The first month delved into the texture of Beirut itself, with workshops by local artists, architects, and curators, including Akram Zaatari, Rami Daher, and Mirene Arsanios. The film scholar Kamran Rastegar led a six-week seminar on postcolonial cinema, followed by workshops with the artists Alfredo Jaar and Willie Doherty. Six more sessions – with Hito Steyerl, Hassan Khan, and Lina Saneh, among others – will carry the students through to the end of the year, at which point they will present the projects they’ve been working on all along to the public, with a catalogue and an open-studio-style exhibition in July.
The idea is that every year, a new resident professor will create a new curriculum for the incoming class, which will be capped at around fifteen students. There are no geographical quotas, but the emphasis remains on artists in the Arab world. There are also no limitations in terms of discipline, so the program is open to visual and performing artists, filmmakers, critics, curators, and more. Additional funding is available to either provide for the accommodation or to offer a housing allowance to students coming to Lebanon from abroad. Yet because the school is so new, the process is still being tweaked. Unlike Jacir, for example, the resident professor lined up for 2012-2013, Matthias Lilienthal (who comes from a theater background and collaborated with Christoph Schlingensief) devised his curriculum – with modules on invented formats, intimacy and voyeurism, the form of the lecture-performance, and art and technology – before knowing who his students will be (the idea being, perhaps, that applicants may take up the challenge of responding to his themes).
Nearly two years ago now, during the fifth Home Works Forum, the historian Andrew Ross gave a talk in Beirut that explicitly addressed the phenomenon of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi but implicitly connected to education, which was one among the event’s many and subtle themes. "Art schools are more unruly than museums," he said. "They are not for tourist maps. Shabbily dressed freethinkers are not a selling point." What happens in an educational endeavor "cannot be predicted," he added, "and may well be insurrectionist." That would not go down well in the Gulf, but the Home Workspace Program could probably handle it, and would even welcome it.
Beirut-based writer. She is a contributing editor for Bidoun and writes regularly for The Daily Star, Artforum and Frieze.