Ways of Seeing, Telling and Sharing. On Akram Zaatari’s Conversation With An Imagined Israeli Filmmaker Named Avi Mograbi by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez

"I see my motivation for research not as that of a historian but an artist interested in history; not a social scientist or urbanist but rather an artist interested in socio-urban issues."¹

During his residency at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers in April 2010, Akram Zaatari, Lebanese artist, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation², organized a mini-festival of screenings and talks that paved the way for this one-time lecture performance. In it, Akram Zaatari attempted to write, improvise, and deliver a conversation with an imagined Israeli filmmaker, giving him the name of Avi Mograbi. In this long conversation Akram Zaatari revisited recordings from his childhood that he had either made himself or heard and saw growing up during the Israeli occupation of his city Saida (1982-1985), and tried to envision what an Israeli filmmaker might have lived through during those same years. Akram Zaatari built on an idea that Avi Mograbi dealt with when he invented the character of a Palestinian producer in his film Happy Birthday Mr. Mograbi (1999), played by Palestinian producer Daoud Kuttab himself. In the case of Conversation... Zaatari assigned a role for Mograbi to perform.

The framing of personal narrative in the context of larger "events" by way of photographic documents and archives seems to have become one of the most widespread forms used by Lebanese artists today. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie finds certain typologies in the use of these documents in the Lebanese contemporary art scene, and she argues about the significant ways "in which [the artists] treat the material traces of the war as symptoms, as scraps of visual information that slide around without fixed meaning."³ As Akram Zaatari himself often puts it, part of his work as an artist involves looking for and collecting "documents" for potential incorporation into his projects. Though he has always been interested in documents that originate outside art practices ‒ and often in those produced for commercial, personal or other purposes ‒ since the late 1990s, Akram Zaatari has became more focused on locating and collecting existing documents that help him assess the complex political situation in the so-called Middle East, and which have helped provide him with "keys to understanding the complex relationships that tie society to its image(s)."⁴ Thus in his video All is Well on the Border (1997), he explored the Lebanese-Israeli conflict in South Lebanon through its mediated / televised images. For a later video entitled This Day (2000-03), he collected all sorts of documents, photographs, notebooks, e-mail attachments of pictures, and testimonies from conflict zones, particularly in Iraq and Palestine. In the context of this work, these documents were linked to a psychological and geographic journey through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and looked at possibilities of representing landscapes and cityscapes loaded with the histories of past wars. In the same work Akram Zaatari used his own personal documents dating back to his adolescence, during which time he lived with his family and experienced the 1982 Israeli invasion of South Lebanon firsthand.⁵  

Before beginning their staged conversation, Akram Zaatari first confronted the audience with his intention to fictionalize not only Avi Mograbi, the Israeli dissident documentary filmmaker, but also himself: "We are both playing roles that have been pre-scripted to us by a situation, like characters in a play or film, and like two individuals born in two enemy states. As much as in prison one thinks of freedom, in wartime, it is inevitable not to think of peace. But, we know that it is not simple to unmake history, to go back in time and unmake injustice, violence, occupation and war. This is why we could only be individual voices, fictive because we don’t represent. In fact we misrepresent. Fictive because we are out of sync with national entities. Our voices are our nations’ imagination(s) as opposed to nations’ realities."⁶ Avi Mograbi joined the conversation, first via Skype and then by entering the stage and sitting down at the table next to Akram Zaatari, after which he pretended to unpack his backpack as if arriving from a long journey. The exchanges between Avi Mograbi and Akram Zaatari, which were interwoven with autobiographical anecdotes and several unresolved questions, revolved around photos, films, and personal notes from public archives or their own private collections documenting the years of conflict between their respective countries. Because the intention was to fictionalize these conversations, however, they alternately registered in the mind of the curious spectator as highly plausible or potentially invented. Interestingly enough, such mediation of fragmented knowledge and speculation echoes what Akram Zaatari described some years ago in his lecture The Singular of Seeing ("Al Marra min Nazar", 2003) in relation to photography (or documents, in a larger sense) and its context: "One usually finds photographs separated from their corresponding narratives, whereas films – whether to advantage or disadvantage – carry their narratives within them, often in packaged, edited format such as feature or short films, documentaries or reports. When separation between image and narrative occurs, the narrative, or illustrative information, in a certain fragment is reduced to the strictest minimum observed in that fragment. What is of interest, at this instant, is the state of initial cognition before any meaning is generated, or synthesized by the audience and before any links with other fragments get drawn."⁷ In the performance they also presented a few of the missions fulfilled by Avi Mograbi on Akram Zaatari’s request and which have been happening since Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon in 2006. At the very end of the performance, at its dramaturgical climax, spectators were able to discover the very last mission, Avi Mograbi’s documentation of Akram’s wish to film the border with Lebanon from the Israeli side, which Akram can only imagine but is never able to see. It is worth drawing attention to the fact that the lecture performance is a widely-used format of semi-fictional and semi-autobiographical narrative that accompanies many contemporary Lebanese artistic positions. To mention but a few: Walid Raad with his second-to-last project The Atlas Group, Rabih Mroué (who calls his performances "semi-documentary theatre"), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige all employ rhetorical and/or choreographic means to linguistically mediate and share information, and visually enhance it through projected images in a classical dispositive where the speaker is placed face-to-face with audience members.

Lecture performance designates a performative format of public speech that has established itself in the last decade as a form of action and communication with specific features. We can trace its beginnings back to those artists whose educational methods represented a constituent and lively part of their artistic practice: Joseph Beuys and John Cage being the most prominent ones, and Robert Morris more specifically. In contrast to an academic dispositive, lecture performance tests the spectators’ doubts about conveying and transmitting knowledge in an academic way. Half-knowledge, invention and fiction thus become its most productive elements.

In the literary genre of essay-writing, Jenny Dirksen sees a form of hybridity between "pragmatic and aesthetic interest... between communicating content and shaping that communication formally"⁸ that is similar to that of lecture performance. Dirksen shows how the (self-)reflexive method used both in first-person written narrative, and by a physically present lecturer, enables the writing or speaking subject to become visible rather than just verifying the theses and statements deployed within either format. However, in a dialogue with Dirksen’s speculation about this greatly expanded artistic practice that consists of re-valorizing the right of today’s artists to speak about, and gain control over, the distribution of the tangible aspects of his or her work, it would also be interesting to draw a parallel to the artistic strategy called self-historicization, which is an artistic attempt at writing one’s own (artistic) history. Self-historicization is a term that has been widely promoted within the former Eastern European countries by several artists (Irwin, Ilya Kabakov, Zofia Kulik, and others) and, most prominently, by Zdenka Badovinac, director of Moderna galerija in Ljubljana and curator of several crucial exhibitions related to that region. "Because the local institutions that should have been systematizing neo-avant-garde art and its tradition either did not exist or were disdainful of such art," writes Badovinac, "the artists themselves were forced to be their own art historians and archivists, a situation that still exists in some places today. Such self-historicization includes the collecting and archiving of documents, whether of one’s own art actions, or, in certain spaces, of broader movements, ones that were usually marginalized by local politics and invisible in the international art context."⁹ Whereas the heart of self-historicization as an artistic strategy in Eastern Europe has been the art production itself, in most cases (except in the most recent series of works produced by Walid Raad) the focus of self-historicization in Lebanese contemporary art, and more specifically in Conversation..., seems to be the history of the war, unwritten, fragmented, torn apart and personalized in so many different narratives.

Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires Jan-April 2011

¹ A. Zaatari: "Photographic Documents/Excavation as Art", in Charles Merewether (ed.), The Archive, London: Whitechapel Gallery / Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006, p.183. The text was written before the war of July 2006.

² A non-profit organisation led by artists interested in collecting and studying photography in the Middle East.

³ Kaelen Wilson-Goldie: "Contemporary Art Practices in Post-War Lebanon: An Introduction", in: Suzanne Cotter (ed.), Out of Beirut, Oxford:Modern Art Oxford, p.89.

⁴ Cf. note 1, p.181.

⁵ Zaatari writes: "While making This Day, I worked on the first photographs I took in my life, using my father’s Kiev camera: six images of explosions after an Israeli air raid on Mar Elias hill in Saida, on 6th June 1982. The photographs were taken within five minutes. In my personal notebook I noted that I had taken important photographs", ibid, p.183.

⁶ Extract from the script of the performance, in print with co-publishers Blackjack editions/Paris and Sternberg Press, Berlin / New York.

⁷ Akram Zaatari, "The Singular of Seeing (Al Marra min Nazar)", in: Christine Tohme, Mona Abu Rayyan (eds.), Homeworks. A Forum on Cultural Practices in the Region. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, Beirut: The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, 2002, p.103.

⁸ Jenny Dirksen, "Ars Academica – The Lecture between Artistic and Academic Discourse", in: Kathrin Jentjens, Radmila Joksimović, Anja Nathan-Dorn, Jelena Vesić (eds.), Lecture Performance, Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2009, p.9.

⁹ Zdenka Badovinac, “Interrupted Histories,” in: Zdenka Badovinac et al. (ed.), Prekinjene zgodovine / Interrupted Histories, Ljubljana: Museum of Modern Art, 2006), unpaginated. Cf. Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, "Innovative Forms of Archives: Exhibitions, Events, Books, Museums", in: e-flux journal nr.13, 2010 and e-flux journal nr.16, 2010, www.e-flux.com/journal/view/111, www.e-flux.com/journal/view/138.