Written by Mayssa Fattouh
A rumination on a proposed project that may or may not exist, for a river that may or may not be a river.
A riverless river looming on the outskirts of Beirut, delimiting the morphing capital.
On a cyber stable Monday night in May 2015, a Skype discussion with the artist Vartan Avakian stems, about a possible commission of a long-lasting installation for our not-yet established NGO, TandemWorks, revolving around a strategy by the young Beirut-based architecture firm theOtherDada, aspiring to rehabilitate Nahr Beirut (Beirut River).
So far, it is a scenario of question marks with neither rooted foundations, funding, or space, but a morally responsible and ambitious project is on the table.
March 2016, nine months into a trash crisis that is taking over Lebanon, funding in hand, artist ready, we're still figuring out how to bypass laws, dropping the idea of officially registering TandemWorks and planning for guerrilla alternatives for Avakian's intervention.
The gist was to channel live sounds from a river that ceased to be a nourished and nourishing one since it was boxed in concrete through radio waves and sound emitters scattered in a neighbourhood that turned its back to it, at the exception of the frequent instances where it is employed as storage, dump, vivarium or other random uses.
What reminiscence can be echoed in a space that had lost function and form? In a community gathering, teenagers debated the original existence of the river, sparking a heated and imaginative exchange about the prospects of multiple temporary uses of the emptied canal. 'Vardavar!' (an ancient festival associated with Astghik, the goddess of water, love and fertility) shouted an elderly woman, 'we are made of water, water made this place, should we forget this too?!'
The river still whispers in winter days in the form of a humble stream of muddy water, as a ghostly occurrence creeping in the environs.
Encouraged by the resilience of this puny watercourse and resisting the easy postmodern intellectual pessimism, a call to action became more evident and pressing; as Henri Lefebvre notes 'No space disappears completely or is utterly abolished. Something always survives or endures…'.
Still, how can art that speaks of political contentions and social problems create spaces of engagement in contexts saturated and overwhelmed by the same? And what is place-making and permanence in a haphazard city, with rapid transformations and aspirations for a megapolis with no capacity to identify itself?