Traction 2: Workshopping the Riwaq Biennale

Ashkal Alwan

Traction 2 doubles as the 5th Riwaq Biennale’s contribution (RB5) to the Home Workspace Program 2014-15 at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. As a whole, the five days of the seminar will reflect all the key components of RB5. It begins with an introduction to the biennale program and the Riwaq agenda, and features extensive tours of sites that were pivotal to the Palestinian experience in and around Beirut. In an exploration of HWP and the RB5 educational program NADI, Traction 2 also addresses the promises and pitfalls of informal art education over recent decades. Finally, the seminar ends with a Trans regional investigation of the institutional memory of contemporary art since the 1990s.
The seminar forms the second part of the RB5 public program, Traction, which is structured as a long series of responses to institutions and events throughout Palestine and its immediate neighborhood. It aims to push the biennale to be thinking “through” the structures of contemporary art, as opposed to thinking “about” or “against” them.
In this spirit of chronic infiltrations and slow tenacity, RB5 will span a full two years, which may allow this brief visit to Lebanon to become a lasting contribution to a longer, accumulative conversation. Traction 2 is not only an infiltration of HWP in Beirut, where RB artistic director Khalil Rabah is one of the year’s resident professors, but an opportunity to enrich and indeed infiltrate the RB5 agenda in and of itself.

Day 1, Monday the 17th of November
8 pm – 10 pm

> Introduction to the aims and ingredients of the 5th Riwaq Biennale
With artistic director Khalil Rabah & curator Tirdad Zolghadr
The Riwaq Biennale is named after an institution, not a place. It was initiated in 2005, to expand upon Riwaq’s approach aiming at the revitalization of historic centers of 50 towns and villages throughout Palestine. In other words, this biennale comes with an agenda. It is invested in Riwaq’s efforts to clarify the growing political and epistemic significance of architectural heritage in local towns and villages. With its concrete political outlook and its durational, discursive approach, Riwaq has always challenged what a biennale can be. This time, the 5th Riwaq Biennale (RB5) will span an entire two years, beginning in June 2014 and ending in May 2016. Its condition is chronic, as opposed to sporadic. (see Biennale Statement and Ingredients for more information on RB5)

> Introduction to Riwaq and its ongoing engagement with 50 towns and villages throughout Palestine
With Suad Amiry (founder, Riwaq), Khaldun Bshara (co-director, Riwaq)
Since 1991, Riwaq has recognized the challenging complexities of preserving Palestinian collective memory through projects that document and restore architectural heritage sites across the West Bank and Gaza. Harnessing the energy and skills of students, architects, archaeologists, and historians, Riwaq embarked on the Registry of Historic Buildings, a thirteen year project (1994-2007) resulting in the publication of three volumes that include detailed histories, maps, and photos of approximately 420 villages in sixteen districts across the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. Other projects have not been as vast in size, but boast a similarly powerful vision with equally lasting impacts. Riwaq’s “Job Creation Through Conservation,” for example, has transformed cultural heritage into an important economic tool, and shifted the concept of architectural conservation from an activity exclusive to affluence, to one that provides skill-building opportunities for residents, and community economic development for neighborhoods, villages, and municipalities. Utilizing data provided in Riwaq’s Registry of Historic Buildings project, we have concluded that by protecting 50 villages, we will succeed in protecting nearly 50% of the historic buildings in Palestine, of which there are 50,230. Consequently, Riwaq has shifted its priorities and resources from the conservation of single historic buildings to a more universal approach that engages entire communities. Through this work, we believe Riwaq has succeeded in responding to the vital question of what it takes to rehabilitate an entire town, not only physically, but socially, culturally, and economically.

Day 2, Tuesday the 18th of November
10 am – 1 pm
> Night Vision
Workshop with senior members of Riwaq, Khaldun Bshara (co-director,Riwaq), Suad Amiry (founder,Riwaq), Ruba Salim (architect and designer, Riwaq), Michel Salameh (architect/restorer, Riwaq), Lana Judeh (architect, Riwaq), Renad Shqerat (environmental designer, Riwaq), Shatha Safi (architect, Riwaq ) and local guests: Hana Alamuddin (Department of Architecture & Design, AUB), Caecilia L. Pieri (Institut français du Proche-Orient), and Yasmine Makaroun (teacher in the Fine Arts Faculty and Center for Restoration and Conservation, Lebanese University)
This session addresses key challenges and pitfalls of architectural and conservational practice as defined by Riwaq. The workshop will address the possibilities of harboring an overarching professional vision in the context of today, as well as the peculiar role of the public intellectual or social engineer that the Riwaq agenda inevitably invokes.

3 pm – 6 pm
> RB5 Ingredients
An in-depth workshop of the 5th Riwaq Biennale approach and ingredients with Khalil Rabah and Tirdad Zolghadr. Response by Salim Tamari (sociologist)

Day 3, Wednesday the 19th of November
10 am – 7 pm
>Lingering Presence
Tour of sites and institutional landmarks that were/are pivotal to the Palestinian/Lebanese experience.
With Manal Khader (writer & publisher), Zuhair Rahhal (former political figure), Amira Solh (urban planner), Mahmoud Soueid (director of Institute for Palestine Studies)
The tour will begin at the former United States of Palestine Airlines Regional Office in Hamra, near Medina Theatre. It will include:
A visit to the Institute for Palestine Studies, the oldest institute to be devoted exclusively to the documentation, research and analysis of Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was established in Beirut in 1963 and incorporated as a private, independent, non-profit institute unaffiliated with any political organization or government. It hosts the biggest archive of documents and images on Palestine and the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Our host will be general director Mahmoud Soueid.
A visit to Burj Al-Barajneh, a refugee camp located in the suburbs of southern Beirut which is home to over 28,000 refugees. Founded in 1948, it measures one square km in size and houses refugees from Palestine and the Syrian Civil War. Located within Burj el Barajneh is a UNRWA-supported Women’s Learning Center that provides education, vocational training, and childcare for women and families within the camp. Over 2014, the Learning Center has established a catering business managed and staffed entirely by residents of the camp, who will be hosting us for lunch. Our menu: msakhan, mahrourah and knafeh nabulsieh for dessert.
A visit to the Fakahani neighbourhood. A one km walk that will take us through the once bustling and  politically vibrant area that housed the PLO headquarters, along with constituent organizations, until 1982. A neighbourhood that seems to have moved on to another era – though it takes very little to discover otherwise. Our tour guide is Zuhair Rahhal.
A visit to the Palestinian martyr’s cemetery near Shatila.

Day 4, Thursday the 20th of November
2 pm – 5 pm
> Classrooms and Capital
A workshop exploring the promises and vagaries of informal art education post-1990s, including the RB5 Nadi and the Ashkal Alwan HWP as case studies with theorist Suhail Malik, Christine Tohme, Tirdad Zolghadr & guests

8 pm – 10 pm
> Vindicating Didacticism
Lecture with Suhail Malik, co-director of MFA Goldsmiths London and visiting faculty at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College NY
It is commonly assumed that education is a good thing, and that adding art to the equation cannot possibly do any harm. But the working premises that shape such intuitions are not always thoroughly explored. Building on previous studies of art education of both formal and informal varieties, Malik will address the potentials of the “didactic” as a working premise, and explore the tempting notion of a better para-academy.

Day 5, Friday the 21st of November
10 am – 1 pm
> 1990+
Workshop with anthropologist Kirsten Scheid
The heritage of the nineties forms a key trope for both RB5 and Ashkal Alwan in 2014-15. Kirsten Scheid of the American University of Beirut has conducted extensive research on the institutional memory of the 1990s in and around the cultural landscape of Ramallah, where the focus is customarily on the dramatic impact of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Scheid’s research, and the history of the region at large, suggests that broader factors were equally at play, in ways that are yet to be accounted for.
8 pm – 10 pm
> It’s the Thought That Counts
A roundtable with:
Vasif Kortun, founder of Platform Garanti in Istanbul, now director of research and programs at SALT Istanbul
Khalil Rabah, co-founder of Al Mamal Foundation in Jerusalem, and of the Riwaq Biennale in Ramallah
Suha Shoman , founding director of Darat al Funun in Amman
Christine Tohme, founding director of Ashkal Alwan in Beirut
Akram Zaatari, director and founding member of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut
William Wells, founding director of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo
Moderator: Tirdad Zolghadr

The guests at this illustrious roundtable co-founded key institutions during the course of the nineties, and played a decisive, not to say canonical role in the recent history of contemporary art throughout the region. As they look back in retrospect, what are their most significant decisions, and what are the regrets that still have them waking up at night screaming? In tandem with the afternoon session with Kirsten Scheid, this panel is devoted to exploring mutual generational shifts, some ‘What If’ scenarios, and the opportunities seized and forgotten.