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 privatised, we can somehow perceive and imagine the → catastrophic future of liberal democracies.
On 26 October 2015 was the first heavy rain of the season in Beirut that many people were apprehensive about, because of the garbage crisis that had led to waste being accumulated in different green spots on the mountains, riverbanks 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 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 perform, 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 had 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 the shore and along Beirut’s riverbanks, amongst other places. The developers’ and politicians’ strategy was to devalue the neighbouring 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 mismanagement and chaos, but also 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 along other luxury brands, such as Gucci, Furla etc… The foundation is located on a major highway by the seaside 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 transport of guests 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 that 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, and an immense amount of wealth and art. 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 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 the 98weeks 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 structure we are working in and thinking through needs to be thought of in itself as a feminist structure, and thus the question was: how can an art organisation be a feminist one? This question was the topic of the Labour. Capital. Institution: A Forum on Feminisms we organised with Sidsel Nelund in the summer of 2015.
It proposed that we think through the question of → labour and its relation to capital, domesticity and institutions. This happens at a very specific moment, when there is a growing economy of domestic work and → migratory flows, which are significant not only in a Lebanese context. Simultaneously, Beirut is experiencing an increase in new art institutions, and we see that women constitute a precarious part of the workforce 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 within the frame of a larger history of un(der)paid domestic work?
So if underpaid (mostly) women run the art world’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 labour, equal pay, working hours, social security and maternal leave are brought to the front, along with questions of sexism and sexual harassment inside such institutions. Where questions of care work and reproductive work (tasks that are “naturally” assigned to women) can be re-questioned. And if jobs are an extension of housework, then how can an art structure re-think this gendered division of labour?