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French Version

'Going Public' hopes art can do what politics can't

Beirut plays central role in theme built around Mediterranean port cities

What can art do that politics cannot? For the organizers of a season-long project called "Going Public 06: Atlante Mediterraneo," art can, for one thing, bring people from different geopolitical spheres together in one room, breach the gap between them and unify a single, solid concept.

Based in Milan, Amaze Creative Lab is an arts organization that a group of artists, journalists, sociologists, economists, curators and gallerists established in 2001. Amaze concentrates on two areas of artistic production - "eastern" culture and new media - and has a special interest in the dichotomy between that which is fixed and that which is fluid. On one hand, Amaze publishes books on underexposed Italian artists from the 1970s. On the other, it has been organizing the annual "Going Public" project since 2003.

Conceived as a network of productions, reflections and cultural exchanges that take place in various locations over time, "Going Public" has, in past editions, focused on artists from "peripheral" regions such as Latin American, Southern Europe and the Balkan and Baltic states. This year, Amaze has delved into the cultural and political contexts at play in six different cities more or less lining the Mediterranean - Istanbul, Beirut, Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Alexandria and Barcelona. Taking these six cities as a case study, "Going Public" is also considering the effects of globalization in general and the function of ports in particular, especially when it comes to issues like migration.

Amaze invited artists to work on specific places in each city, such as railway stations, public libraries, schools and public squares, all with the aim of developing an awareness of differing cultures and social attitudes.

The project opened in early September with a workshop in Alexandria ("A Garden for All"), followed by a series of urban installations exhibited in Nicosia ("Transcrossing Memories"), video installations in Tel Aviv ("Floating Symmetry") and a closing workshop, exhibition and block party in the Italian cities of Formigine and Modena. The last leg of "Going Public" opens next week and includes works by the Atlas Group and Akram Zaatari from Beirut, Sameh al-Halawany from Alexandria, Istanbul's Oda Projesi and Nicosia's Achilles Kentonis. Artists and curators providing critical texts include Lebanon's Tony Chakar and Vasif Kortun, curator of the most recent Istanbul Biennial.

According to Claudia Zanfi, the curator largely responsible for "Going Public," the students and artists who are taking part in the project have been pre-selected in every city to give them time to research the relevant issues.

"The outcome will be displayed [in] public places [in] the city of Modena and will be part of the publication on this theme," she explains in an interview conducted by email. "The program will be completed with a round-table discussion on 'Atlante Mediterraneo' - its geography, its people and a special intervention by Lebanese journalist Bilal Khbeiz."

Zanfi hopes that through these projects, art's potential to bridge the gap between cultures will be realized, succeeding where political negotiations have for so long failed.

"We think that art can be like a seed," says Zanfi. "It works to stimulate and activate creative processes, which can become platforms for social debates and 'refresh' mentalities. The aim of our institution is also to relate local people to artists, researchers, architects and writers [and] to move between the various luminal zones of cities, public and transit spaces, with the awareness that it is necessary to know in depth the sociopolitical situation of the context. That's also very important in order to achieve artistic projects that can be effective and communicate with the public and the society."

This view is echoed by the participating artists.

"One of the most important reasons for taking part in this project is working with different and new conditions in cultural, social and economic environments completely different from the experience I have. Namely, I want to work in a different society with different problems," says Sameh al-Halawany, an Egyptian artist whose work is going on view in Formigine and Modena, around the theme "The Mediterranean Atlas and its Human Geographies."

"In this international atmosphere, with all [the] differences and misunderstandings, I think art is the only way left to have a dialogue among different cultures, as it is capable of resurrecting the sense of respect and mutual understanding among peoples," Halawany adds.

Chakar, one among the Lebanese contingent taking part, was asked to submit a text related to recent events in his country and demonstrative of the differences between culture and society in Lebanon versus Europe.

"When I was first contacted about the project, I realized that I had already written a piece specific to their requirements," he says. "The text centers on what happened in Martyrs Square last year, and the creation of March 14. It also looks at the meaning of words, and how they may hold a certain meaning to the Lebanese, but then something else to the Europeans. I also focus on nature, the defining consciousness of a place, what it means to participate and go to Martyrs Square, and most important, the significances of its location."

The coordinator of the Barcelona contingent, Marti Peran, says participating in the "Going Public" project is a creative way for the meeting of minds between students and artists alike.

"It is also motivating to develop something interesting in real time," Peran explains. "Then, new relations will permit the invention of other experiences that at this moment in time we cannot imagine."

For the opening workshop in Alexandria, "Going Public" made use of an old fishermen's village, where the exhibition of artworks encouraged people to produce their own art and crafts and by doing so, rejuvenate their village. By contrast, the project in Nicosia involved a mobile device known as the "Memory Box," which collected popular history from the public. It also doubled as a "traveling public open space" hosting presentations, art projects, films and performances.

In Zanfi's opinion, it is necessary that the general public not only see these projects but actively participate in them, for the sake of demonstrating how art can communicate through cultures and be understood and appreciated by all, even if the audience isn't directly engaged in the subject matter at hand.

"There is a strong interest [in] subjects such as 'territories and inhabitants,'" Zanfi says, "concerning the Mediterranean countries and cities, the multitude of cultures, the flow and the relations in the daily life. We think that places like Beirut, Cyprus, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, since long [ago] are living in a situation of 'overexposure.' They are lands of migrations, transits, passages. Lands of separation, even geographically, with territories divided in two or more areas. The presence of different languages, religions, and cultures.

"All these are 'states of exception,'" adds Zanfi, using sociologist Giorgio Agamben's term, "that create conditions for a platform of discussion - not only for media and journalists - as well as the curiosity for authentic artistic research."

Peran insists that it is important to take part in such projects to make societies conscious of one another and respectful of each other's traditions and cultures.

"One of the reasons we, as a group from Barcelona, are taking part is because in a concrete way, we want to offer explanations to questions offered by those who are alien to Barcelona," Peran says. "We want them to see more than just a city of theme parks or conflicts with immigrant communities."

For more information on "Going Public 06: Atlante Mediterraneo," running October 23-30, please check out www.amaze.it.

Beirut,10 24 2006
Nour Samaha
The Daily Star
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