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Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Octavian Esanu
1 June 2016

To answer this question I propose an excerpt from a text in progress called 'Art and Garbage'. This piece is intended to look into the relation between urgent social problems – in this case the ongoing garbage crisis in Lebanon – and contemporary art. The situation, it seems to me, raises a range of questions with regard to what affects cultural production today, not only Lebanon or the Middle East and North Africa but also in other areas of the world.


'Art and Garbage' (excerpt)


After the first heavy rain to fall in Lebanon last autumn, the English-language newspaper The Daily Star opined that any solution to the months-long garbage collection crisis would already have arrived too late. Like global warming, the garbage crisis had already passed that critical point where something could still have been done to prevent heavy winter rain from washing pollutants (left unattended in the streets of the cities, deposited in valleys, on mountain hills, bulldozed under highway bridges) deep into the ground, contaminating water supplies and endangering public health.


But the peak of the garbage crisis and the coming of the rainy season overlapped with another noticeable trend in Lebanese cultural life – the opening and re-opening of a number of art institutions: from new private contemporary art galleries to major art museum and foundations dedicated to both modern and contemporary art. This was the case on that very stormy Sunday, for instance, when the rain was washing away the remains of our conspicuous consumption. Foreign and local art notables, famous curators and art directors, journalists, art dealers, contemporary artists in skinny jeans and somber-suited politicians followed by wives – we all joined the stream of garbage bags gushing through the streets of Beirut, rushing towards the place of opening of a new house of art. It was one of those rare occasions when a mysterious uncontrollable force (call it global warming or the free market or both) has collapsed irreconcilable opposites into one dense flux of energy and matter.


Two extreme poles on the universal scale of human value collided: art, as the process of meticulous selection of the most beautiful, truthful or useful objects, ideas, feelings and people – and, on the other side garbage: the renouncement or refusal to select, the products of the lowliest of human activities and bodily processes, the leftovers, the superfluous, the unwanted, the abject and the unusable. During the entire year art and garbage met head on in the narrow streets of Beirut on many other occasions – one recalls the identification of money and feces in Freud's theory of the unconscious.


But is there any direct or necessary relation with regard to art and its social context that can be deduced from these encounters on the streets today? Could there be an link, immediate or mediated, between the lack of social or political mechanisms devoted to solving urgent domestic problems, such as the processing of waste, and the proliferation of sophisticated institutional agents dedicated to the production and circulation of products of art and culture? How can one explain the high level of enthusiasm for setting up costly infrastructures for the management, disposal, reuse or recycling of local and global products of art and culture, and the lack of interest, of solutions or of any social consensus towards solving the problem of waste disposal in the country? To push this even further: might it even be the case that the wide availability of facilities permitting the disposal and recycling of art interferes somehow with or even prevents the process of setting in place an effective system of garbage disposal?


I personally think that this is the sort of question (most of them rhetorical of course) that should be asked in response to the question of what affects contemporary cultural production today. From the perspective of what once was called the affirmative character of culture, art institutions today might look something like landfills where social problems are deposited, or to use another metaphor, where the explosive charges of social conflicts and antagonisms are symbolically and safely detonated, thus contributing to the maintenance of the status quo. But perhaps leaders, politicians and executives (in charge of solving social problems and also the biggest art lovers and patrons of culture) might glean a solution to the garbage crisis from the art world – or, to turn this around – perhaps advanced technologies of waste management might improve the work of the contemporary institutions of art. In other words, how might passion for art and beauty be displaced or redirected towards solving urgent social issues? Will this only happen when waste, garbage, and refuse will became a status commodity or an index of symbolic and financial capital, as contemporary art and culture has long been?

Octavian Esanu

is currently Curator and Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. He researches and publishes on issues related to modern and contemporary art in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as their perception in the Western art historical imagination. He has degrees in fine arts and interior architecture (Ilya Repin School of Art and Moldovan State Institute of Art, Chisinau Moldova) and a Ph.D. from Duke University. He is part of the editorial collective ARTMargins. In his activities he seeks a common ground between his artistic, curatorial and scholarly interests.

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