The city exists as a space in a void; a space that welcomes strangers, and then, infatuated by the possibilities of chance, redefines them and suffuses them with a sense of the dramatic. When that city is Beirut, the result of unlimited intersections between the idea of a capital city and the realities of conflict, its borders and definitions dissolve and become invisible.
Ever since the 1950s, Beirut has been living and breathing the arts in a geographical area connected to both the Arab region and Europe. Since the 1990s, artistic spaces in this city have been created as laboratories provoking questions on behalf of art and the city, including architecture, urbanism, identity, the concerns of modernity and the contexts of receiving and producing art in Europe and their subsequent manifestations in the Arab region and beyond. As such, the city has experienced a love-hate relationship with dozens of artists dotted across its map. Some of them produced and published in the city, while others wrote both for it and about it. Dozens of others saw in Beirut the city that they had lost, and thus it became a temporary or permanent alternative for them, akin to a self-imposed exile
War invaded the city and settled into it, snatching parts of its walls, facades and roads and taking apart and recomposing its stories. The sense of destruction proved to be an opportunity to create a new story and form a new map of the city, and Beirut witnessed exceptional projects created to combat the war at an intellectual level. This brings to mind the experiment that was the Beirut Theatre, which later hosted another experiment, the Lebanese Society for Contemporary Arts, founded by Pascale Feghaly, who persisted in organising the September Festival until 2001. In parallel, the failure to establish an official state cultural initiative, despite the fertile ground created by the outburst of cultural creativity during to the war, has seen official cultural projects struggle in the ensuing years. However, all of these initiatives accompanied the city’s ongoing dialogue with place and memory.
This dialogue served as a preamble to other dialogues that were to be established years later when the artists of Damascus decided to relocate to Beirut after being forced to leave their own city. Damascus here is both representative of, and a metaphor for, Syria; representative because of the centralisation of arts in Syria and a metaphor because the spirit of Damascus embodies the idea of ‘home’.
Dozens of newcomers from Damascus (the sister city but not really the sister) arrived in Beirut; writers, film directors, artists and multimedia entrepreneurs. They proposed, to this city of contradictions, another dialogue about the meaning of identity, art experimentation and revolution. The legitimacy of that dialogue was the ‘historical’ match that took place, independently of history writers, between Syrian artists dreaming of producing their own projects (after suffering from the obliteration of privacy and uniqueness within the heavy and sagging conditions of the Syrian state and its official cultural mission in Damascus) and the artists and producers of Beirut longing for the possibility of rallying around a common cause, tired of the sense of isolation that had come to embody most of their projects. Between the individual, the collective and the ensuing stimulating dialogue, everyone saw in this encounter the last real opportunity to liberate Beirut from the shackles of failed projects and the shrinking of cultural spaces within the city, creating a space for blurring dreams.
This encounter (and the clash that reached its summit in 2013–2014 of the Syrian war) generated a space in which to discuss several issues, localise the question of art, dismantle violence, and challenge forced displacement, the meaning of commitment, political activity and the value of humanity to racial practices. The clash broadened and both parties posed questions about the role of censorship, redefining the public space, expertise and professionalism, art references, the new moment of the city, and the ramifications of the Arab Spring. The most significant characteristic of this encounter was its ability to generously embrace new artists whose artistic experience was different from that of the preceding generation. They did not necessarily have an academic background and did not come from big cities. Their desire to stimulate public debate and challenge the viewer comes with the basis of their artistic choices. Those artists became involved with the concerns of Beirut: declining publishing spaces and closure of the media, identifying the operators of the city’s new artistic production and examining the significance of personal revolutions.
Today, the city suffers from ever-diminishing numbers of artists as they journey to new cities; mostly Berlin, Paris, Marseille and Brussels. Thus, the question about the meaning of communication with the city and its contradictions returns. The streets of Beirut, as well as its walls, are hungry for new projects and eager to receive newcomers. However, the question that remains is: what can protect the fragility and sensitivity of those artists from the brutality of those who raped Beirut and Damascus?
Beirut continues to answer this question by embracing a civil revolution which re-engages in the essence of creation: rebellion, liberty, imagination and the right to a better life. The city reopens its doors to revolutionists, activists and campaigners. Amongst them are many artists who see in this revolution an opportunity to reconcile with the city. Beirut surprises them yet again with its capacity to renew itself and to evoke other cities like Tripoli, Sidon, Tyr, Damascus, Baghdad, Algeria, Sanaa’, Manama and Tunisia. At this point, we ask anew: what is a city? The answer comes from the squares and streets of Beirut: it is the chance to tell a story that has neither a banal nor a repeated ending.