Perhaps to address the question of constituencies we should be first addressing the current impasse of liberal democracy in its intricate relation to the neoliberal project. In some parts of the world, the collapse of this system can already predict a certain future of the nation-state model in its current form. In places where the infrastructural support of the state has collapsed, or where different forms of state institutions are purposefully left to fall apart in order to be privatized, there, we can somehow perceive and imagine the catastrophic future of liberal democracies.
On October 26 2015 was the first strong rain of the season in Beirut that many people were apprehending because of the garbage crisis that had led to waste accumulation in different green spots in the mountains, on rivers’ banks and by the seashore. The garbage crisis has been going on for more than a year now, so I am not sure if we can still call it a crisis, it has rather become an ongoing temporary situation people are living in.
I will briefly give a context to what had happened since June 2015; The contract of the private company that was in charge of collecting the garbage had ended, after many renewals and many failures to accomplish the tasks they were legally due to complete, such as recycling 80% of the waste, so garbage was not collected from the streets for a whole month. The garbage company had only recycled 8% of the waste, and instead used non-sanitary dumps to throw in all kinds of waste (medical, industrial, organic etc...) for more than 20 years.
These dumps were located next to the most deprived residential areas by seashores and Beirut’s riverbank amongst other places. The developers’ and politicians’ strategy was to devalue the neighboring land in order to be able to buy it at a very low price and develop it. The placement of landfills by the seashore is not only the result of mis-management and chaos, but rather a planned strategy that developers have used repeatedly since the 1990s, as landfills can also be turned into land that can be extended into the sea.
On the day of the first rain of the season, garbage flooded the streets of the city. On that same day a Lebanese collector was inaugurating the first private contemporary art foundation in Beirut situated inside a mall designed by David Adjaye, that hosts the foundation and along other luxurious brands such as Gucci, Furla etc… The foundation is located on a major highway by the sea side that links Beirut to the north of the country.
Two days prior to the opening the Minister of Interior circulated an official announcement about the temporary closing of one part of the highway to facilitate the circulation for the people attending the inauguration of the foundation.
This same Minister of interior had been trying to shut down protests that erupted because of the garbage crisis and other corruption issues and were demanding the government to step down.
So we find ourselves here with an ecological catastrophe on the one hand and a luxurious art foundation on the other, piles of garbage accumulating by the seashore, flooded garbage, an infinitude of wealth and art collections. Almost as if the art foundation was emerging out of the piles of garbage, or rather, being built on top of them, on the reclaimed land made out of garbage and rubble amongst other things.
This intertwinement of garbage and real estate is not new, it started with in the 1990s with the reconstruction of the city. But what is new to it is the private art foundations that are being built on top of it. And we could even say that capital is moving from the real estate bubble into the arts, or rather between the real estate economy and the arts.
It all seems like a fast-forward into the future of capitalist catastrophes and the future of the city collapsing and melting into its own self.
How can we think about institutions in the middle of this construction fever?
I would like here to give the example of 98weeks research space, a research project I co-founded with Mirene Arsanios in 2007.
We started with a need to create a research platform and community that would be looking at a same research topic through different angles and that would be pursuing a collective form of research. After doing many projects and setting up a project space we came to a moment where we felt that the structures we are working in and thinking through needs to be in itself thought as a feminist structure, or the question was: how can an art organization be a feminist one? This question was the topic of the feminisms forum we organized with Sidsel Nelund in the summer of 2015.
It proposed to think through the question of labor and its relation to capital, domesticity and institutions. At a very specific moment, where there is a growing economy of domestic work and migratory flows significant not only for a Lebanese context. Simultaneously, Beirut is experiencing an increase in new art institutions and we see that women constitute a precarious part of the work force upon which the art world functions. As art institutions continuously reproduce this exploitation, we wanted to critically ask: How can we think of underpaid women in the art world in the frame of a larger history of un(der)paid domestic work?
So if underpaid (mostly) women run the artworld’s structures, perhaps while all the new art foundations are emerging and capital is being thrown into the arts, we could propose a feminist structure where questions of labor, equal pay, working hours, social security and maternal leave are brought to the front, where questions of sexism and sexual harassment inside institutions are brought to the front.
Where questions of care work and reproductive work (tasks that are “naturally” assigned to women) can be re-questioned.
And if jobs are extension of the housework condition then how can an art structure re-think this gendered division of labor.