Vol. 3, Number 1, March 2007
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The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Current:
Notes for a Possible Timeline
Julia Meltzer and David Thorne produce videos, photographs, and installations. From 1999 to 2003, their projects centered on secrecy, history, and memory. Current works focus on the ways in which visions of the future are imagined, claimed, and realized or relinquished, specifically in relation to faith and global politics.
Recent projects have been exhibited at the Walraff-Richartz Museum (Köln), Argos Center for Art and Media (Brussels), the Wexner Center (Columbus, Ohio), the 2008 Whitney Biennial, the 2006 California Biennial, Akbank Sanat Gallery (Istanbul), Apex Art (New York), and as part of the Hayward Gallery's (London) travelling exhibition program. Video work has been screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, The New York Video Festival, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival, among many others.
> “WE DON’T LIKE IT AS IT IS BUT WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE WANT IT TO BE.”
Since 1999 The Speculative Archive has developed two bodies of work consisting of installation projects, photographs, and films. The first focused on state secrecy practices, memory, and history. Our current projects focus on the use of documents – images, texts, objects, bodies, and physical structures – to project and claim visions of the future in a time of war on terror. Much of our recent work is based on a year spent living and working in Damascus, Syria. We are currently in post-production on a film, We don’t like it as it is but we don’t know what we want it to be.
We arrived in Syria in January 2005 having done considerable research on “preventive war,” “preemption,” and “imminent threat,” with particular emphasis on how these concepts and practices affect the experience of time. Over a period of a year in Damascus, we became interested in the ways in which these concepts and practices affect the Syrian regime, and, by extension, the people they rule. While our starting point may have been the “Bush Doctrine,” it became clear that the Syrian regime, dominated by the Asad family, uses the concepts of imminent threat and preemption to their own advantage. The threats to Syria, according to the regime, are many – a possible US and/or Israeli invasion and occupation, the growing influence of political Islam, and the possibility that simmering ethnic and tribal divisions could erupt into civil war, Iraq or Lebanon-style. These scenarios – visions of things to come – become justifications for the maintenance of the status quo. “Better the devil you know.”
From April to August 2005 we conducted interviews with seven Syrians ranging in age from 24–50. These people included several members of the opposition, a professor, a journalist, a Sheikha (female sheik), a young activist, and a writer. All agreed to be on camera and to speak openly.
Through these interviews we sought to understand the ways in which time is and has been manipulated internally by a regime whose main interest is self-preservation. How does this particular governing body project itself across time – between past and future – in order to perpetuate and strengthen itself as a regime? How do people identify, believe, and position themselves in relation to the ruling power and to the religious, family, and social structures that constitute the time they live in? What is the experience of time? How do they envision the future?
Among the people we interviewed was Yassein Haj-Saleh, a member of the opposition who was imprisoned for 16 years. Yassein, now a journalist, speaks about a “third and fourth way” which envisions a political future for Syria that begins from a moderate Islamic position, is democratic, and is able to maintain a critical stance towards US policy in the region.
At the conclusion of the interview process, we began looking at the buildings and structures that make up the city of Damascus, in search of a visual and cinematic correlation to the ideas we had been discussing with our interview subjects. At the center of the city in Martyr’s Square, there is a looming, unfinished concrete structure, slated to become a shopping center with a large attached mosque. Begun in 1982, the structure remains unfinished to this day. It is named after Basel Al-Asad, the son of late president Hafez al-Asad. Basel – revered as the hope for the future of the country – was killed in a car crash in January 1994.
As we inquired about this building, we encountered multiple and sometimes competing stories about its history and its projected uses. Over a period of four months we conducted interviews with persons familiar with the history of the city and who have associations with this particular site. We interviewed the original architect and engineer on the proposed project, Mouseis Halajian and Sabri Malki respectively. We filmed the model for this project, which won them first prize in the design competition in 1967. We also filmed the building as it now stands. Another Damascus architect, Hekmat Chotta, remarked during an interview, “Within this building you will find the story of the failed state of modern Syria.”
What follows are elements from a film-in-progress: stills from video footage, excerpts from an interview with Yassein Haj-Saleh, and notes for a timeline on the Marquez Basel al-Asad.
Notes for a Possible Timeline
Syrian Ministry of Endowments solicits designs for luxury hotel with mosque, to be built at Martyr’s Square in Damascus.
Design selected from among numerous submissions. Winning plan calls for two hotels, offices, shops. Groundbreaking delayed due to trouble with financing.
Proposal for project changes to include new mosque. Permission granted to demolish Mamluk mosque presently on site. Second competition held for new designs. Original winner wins again.
Disputes over revised design. Ministry of Endowments in court with Committee to Preserve the Old City. Construction delayed.
Minister of Endowments is replaced. New minister disapproves of proximity of mosque to hotel, cancels project. Winning architects removed from project. Plans are changed. Lebanese firm brought in to oversee the construction. Construction does not begin.
Mamluk mosque demolished.
Construction delayed. Redesign process continues. Hospital? Parking garage?
Suggestion floated that the French underwrite construction. Ministry rejects, suspicious of French intentions. Plans changed to office building, possibly for government offices. No one sure just what plan is.
Ministry of Engineering takes over project.
Construction officially begins. More delays.
"A new sense of time starts here, when there are no hooks and no means to learn--the prison is a mere four walls. Time is heavy, slow, and almost does not pass. THere are no ways to spend time and there are no means to control time. In a way, time is not the prisoner's friend when he has no books, learning materials, or the like. Fortunately, during thirteen-and-a-half years of the 15 years I spent in prison, there were books and dictionaries, and these things help the prisoner to be friends with time. He becomes in need of time. I mean, he does not feel that the time is heavy, slow and hardly passes. No, in a way, time becomes our friend and we are at piece with it. The strange thing that happened to me is that when I was about to finish the 15 years I was sentenced to, I had a feeling of anxiety: What am I going to do when I get out of prison? It is to say that prison, in a way, became a solution and going out of prison became a problem. Why? Because after 10 years, or after a long time of imprisonment, prison stops being a very sharp problem. It stops being a very pressing thing that the prisoner complains about. I mean it becomes acceptable. We got used to the kinds of problems we faced and we found solutions and a good degree of accommodation. So, every prisoner that spent a long time in prison will have that anxiety, but unfortunately, instead of getting out of prison, I was taken to Palmyra, where I spent one more year. In Palmyra everyone wants to get out, and it is impossible to feel anxious about getting out because the place is a place... you can say a source of horror, a source of humiliation, and a place where people are crushed."
Construction seems to resume. Is the building getting bigger? What is going on? When will it be done?
Official declaration to name building after Basel al-Asad. Plans for site to include equestrian ring along with hotel, shops, and mosque? None made publicly available. Someone remarks: “We don’t like it as it is, but we don’t know what we want it to be.”
No activity at site. Boarded up at street level. But sand keeps getting moved, concrete mixed, stories added. One day there are 14 floors when the day before there had only been 13. Fourteen. A fact that simply wins acceptance: This is how it has always been—when were there ever only 13 floors? You don’t know what you are talking about. You are seeing things.
1984, 1989, 1997, 2003, 2005
Rumor that building has started to sink into ground. Argument: Sink? Never! You are out of your mind. Yes, an underground river is swallowing the whole thing up. No, hadn’t this river been pumped away, diverted, taken care of? Yes, but it has come back, it has found its way back, and it is sucking the building down into the earth. Nonsense, this ton of bricks is not going anywhere. Oh yes it is, the earth is swallowing it. Send for reinforcements! Wrong! It will keep rising up, to the sky. It is not sinking, it is floating! No, my friend, you have an ass where your mouth should be. Inch by inch, it will disappear. Some day the whole thing will just be gone, it will just vanish and all that will be left is dust!
"I was born in 1961. The Ba'ath Party took over in 1963. I have lived all my life under this regime. I can't imagine what my life would be like if there was a different regime. Still, I can talk about few things here. I have never visited any country in the world save Lebanon. I have been there four times in 2003 and 2004. Had there been a different regime here I would probably have a passport and I might have visited some other Arab and European countries. I have a desire to visit India, for example, or Brazil. Undoubtedly, opportunities for work and education would be very different. But I still find some hard pleasure living under such a regime, feeling that I am grabbing a greater space for public work--as if I am digging stone with my hands. This gives me some balance and helps me endure the fact I am living practically in a huge prison. My movement is very restricted. On the other hand, I have no political ambitions of any kind. I don't want any political position even if this regime is overthrown. However, that would allow me more liberties. But maybe if there were a different regime, I wouldn't travel abroad, or I might travel only a few times. The important fact remains I would be able to choose not to travel. Today I don't travel because I am forbidden to. Only he who is denied his freedom knows its value. Maybe I wouldn't make use of my freedom if I owned it. Give me my freedom and I'll throw it out of the window. Just don't you throw it."
Quiet debate about what could replace the Marquez if it sinks, falls, implodes, or is destroyed: New headquarters for the UN. Housing for Iraqi refugees. The Israeli Consulate. The Lebanese Consulate. A 9/11 Memorial. Starbucks. Nothing. Theories climb into the thousands. Counting is exhausting, exhausting on top of believing every one of them. Most believable?: Only the mosque will remain, as if the site were returning to its past glory, when it was a beautiful Mamluk mosque, out in the open, unencumbered with commerce, not a hotel in sight, no prostitutes. . . and there will only be pilgrims, thousands upon thousands of the faithful passing in and out of the square. . . and it is the weight of their bodies on the earth that will keep this building from ever rising back up, will keep it from even being remembered. . .
Debate subsides; Asad government places banner atop structure, facing Martyr’s Square: “Syria is breathing patriotism.” The whole thing seems solid enough.
"If we wanted to move from talking about politics to talking about culture, I think the right thing is to talk about a fourth way or choice, and not just about a third one. There are three powers the democratic intellectuals are trying to differentiate themselves from. The first is westernization and the domination and hegemony connected to it, carried out specifically by the Americans nowadays. The second power tries to impose a religious type that is radical and lacks modernity. The third one is the current dictatorial regimes benefiting from the conflict between the westernized method and the Islamic one to impose their dictatorship and keep the authority in their hands forever. In this context we could speak about a fourth way that we, as democratic intellectuals, are seeking. A way that would establish a liberated culture open to human thoughts and human equality but without rejecting our Arabic culture and without having a nihilistic attitude towards Islam. Islam should be a part of it but not its essence. Western culture should also be an important part of it, as it is necessarily an anti-dictatorial culture, a productive, creative and liberated one."