interviewed by Samar Martha, January 2007

Were do you live, what is your background?

I was born in 1972 in Lebanon. I now live and work in Beirut. I first studied Graphic Design in Paris then studied cinema and painting at Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, USA, where I graduated with a BFA in 1995.
I first exhibited my work in the USA, then a first solo show 'Surfaces' in Beirut in 1997.

What is your work 'Je d'histoires', 2006 about?

The idea behind 'Je d'histoires' is in the continuity of my work, which explores narrative possibilities and reflects on the idea of relative truth in regards to an event which occurred, only this time it is with the participation of the 'spectator'. He / she can actively take part of the process of story telling and engage in multiple 'scenarios'.

This work also points out the process of story telling and the mechanism through which text, image and music are linked to create a narrative.
How can images, music or text express different meanings? How can one same 'event' be told in various ways?

This interactive video installation plays with multiple stories and narrative possibilities. The visitor is invited to construct his / her own visual story from an array of video images, texts and music. He / she becomes an actor of the narrative process, each time renewing it. The videos are landscapes, urban views of Beirut or super 8mm film found footage. The texts relate to love and war. The music presents looped sounds, to melodious tunes, and even lyrical sequences.

Je d’histoires
, 2006, interactive video installation, video still

The presence of the visitor is recorded through a microphone and those recordings are stored into a database to be transformed later and re-injected at a different time during playing, like an eruption.
The visitor also affects / disturbs the playing, because the sounds he / she produces while watching can freeze or disintegrate the image. His / her presence is therefore imprinted into each sequence, making it unique.

How do you describe your work in general?

My work raises the question of history and its possible narration.
How do we approach history? What image of it do we retain? What image of it will I re-create? Questions that challenge our outlook, our subjectivity, and also the relation between our individual history and that of the collective.

My work reflects on the process of memory: recalling events,
re-enacting them, collecting reminiscences, assembling testimonies, (all of these are fragments of an unknown and inaccessible history), and finally forgetting, an important part of that process, which allows humans to survive.
It is driven by the desire to recount history, to recount an experience while at the same time, underlining the mechanism of such an attempt and including it as part of the work.

In 'Objects of War', a work begun in 1999, assembling a series of testimonials on the Lebanese war, I asked each person to choose an object, ordinary, or unusual, which serves as a starting point for his / her story of this war.
In 'Objects of War', the aim is not to reveal a truth but rather to gather and confront many diverse versions and discourses on the subject. The work of collecting these stories continues.

In the documentary 'Houna wa Roubbama Hounak' ('Here and Perhaps Elsewhere') I record many stories along my journey through what used to be the dividing line between East and West Beirut and across the former checkpoints. Knowing that thousands of people disappeared from 1975 to 1990 and that we are left with very little information about what happened to them and their bodies, I ask each inhabitant I encounter if he or she knows someone that was kidnapped there during the war. I assemble testimonies and discourses on the Lebanese war through a process of memory and language: what people recount, what they refuse to tell or fear to express, what they can't remember, and what gets repeated from one person to the other.

In both 'Objects of Wa'r and 'Houna wa Roubbama Hounak', only fragments of history are recounted, held as truth by those expressing them.

The idea of relative truth also exists in the short fiction 'Ici et peut-être ailleurs', published in 2003. In that story, freely inspired by Akira Kurosawa's film 'Rashomon', a dramatic fact - that of the disappearance and probable murder of a man, Wahid Saleh, is recounted by several protagonists.
The accounts of each protagonist follow one another in an illusory attempt to reconstitute this dramatic fact through clues and cross checking. Here the gaps in the story prevent us from reaching a unique truth. Each protagonist claiming the murder of Wahid Saleh raises the question of responsibility, making each of us a potential actor in this crime.

These works reflect the process of memory and the relation to history through linear narratives, whereas in other works, I seek different narrative forms, in which the story is 'exploded'; such as 'Untitled 1997-2003', 'Replay', and 'Replay (bis)', where fragments of sounds, images and texts form a non-linear narrative, bursting out and disappearing like recollections of an undefined past.

The film 'Replay (bis)', (9 minutes, 2002), is a drama that replays differently three times. First with text and images, then with that same text repeated with the use of new images, and finally, with the text leading to a view of Beirut harbour, filmed in real time, during the dusk prayer, inviting us to contemplation. The story told in the first two chapters is 'missing', it has gaps, only bits of it reach us, like recollections bursting into the consciousness of the narrator and trying to find some order in it. We don't know and will not know where and when this drama happened. In the last chapter, one single image, the only image in the present time, sets the narration beyond words; it seems to me that this image alone encompasses all that the preceding chapters attempted to express.

The installation 'Replay', made in 2000, draws its origin from two archival images taken from the book 'The War in Lebanon - Images and Chronology', (Dar El Massira, 1979). One, a man photographed three times lying on the ground, wounded by a bullet. The other, a woman barefoot in a street, begging for help. Those images haunted me for years. They are fragments of history. While looking at them, I tried to imagine, to project, what may have happened in that place during the war.
A simple thought was also at the origin of 'Replay'. When I see a man falling in the street, quite a usual occurrence, why do I think that this man is dying? One possible answer comes to my mind. It is because the image of that man falling is a fragment of history, which carries its own memory. That of a man dying in an undefined past. The man is falling there in front of me, but he has already fallen before, in another time. Like the man falling and dying in 'La Jetée' by Chris Marker, he dies there in front of us, but he is already dead. That image / fragment, that instant when the man falls, is what I call 'an instant of rupture', rupture within time, rupture of time. So I reconstituted the frame and the action of those instants of rupture, by asking a man and
a woman to replay the imaginary instant which preceded each photographic take.

The video 'Embrace', (which is part of 'Time and the Other', an exhibition and book made in 2004), started from the same concept. That of an instant of violence, a rupture, where the loss of the other becomes possible. Violence projected into any act, at that singular instant when the real and the non-real are indiscernible. In 'Embrace', there is one single take, the camera doesn't move but closes in many times, and when it gets closer we do not distinguish any better the nature of the action. On the contrary, the ambiguity grows as the two bodies and their movements become abstract and the frontier between confrontation and embrace is blurred.

To film sleep, to replay the scene of an experience, to reconstitute a story through recollections, archival documents or fictitious elements, all these constitute essentially a work on Time: the recording of time, of its trace and its effects on us. It is a reflection on our relentlessness and yet our incapacity to measure, understand and accept time and the idea of time.

If the last shot of 'Replay (bis)' is a unique take, a particle of real time (the time of the dusk prayer), the video 'Sleep' (part of 'Time and the Other'), is also a single shot made of a succession of photograms (taken with the help of a camera with a programmed intervalometer). But in the video 'Sleep', this shot repeats itself, expanding at each replay and transforming its content as well as the rhythm of its images every time. The bodies in motion, of the couple become abstract, blurring the border with reality. These recorded fragments of sleeping time are as many ellipses. They point to all those moments that have not been recorded and never will be, those moments that will remain lost to the story. 'Sleep' is the place of total separation, a unique moment of solitude to which the other has no access. In this film, sounds and images are worked to create a sort of lyricism which is haunted by anxiety, as well as to express the swing between discord and harmony that lies in the relationship to the loved other.

'Time and the Other' is a story of love and the terrible slow separation of a couple, told in the first person. Here the experience of subjectivity is pushed further: The 'I' of the first person is staged not only as a subject of the experience but as a distant object of it. 'Time and the Other' is also a missing story, a story recounted through the subjective eye of one lover, (the 'I' of the first person), in the absence of the other: this other whom we never clearly see though he's always there. His presence is obvious, through his absence and the traces left by his body.

What is the inspiration behind your work 'Je d'histoires'?

As this piece is in the continuity of my work in general, rather than any specific inspiration, I would say it was only logical to bring the questions raised in my work into the field of interactivity, as it is possible now with new technologies, and therefore adding to it another dimension, that of the possibility of choosing which 'story' to watch. That of imprinting ones presence into a scene.
I've been wanting to do this piece for a while, but I usually let ideas and projects simmer for a long time.
Taking notes and recording footage is part of my every day life even though at the moment of writing and filming, it is not necessarily aimed at a specific project. It is only when the idea of a project becomes clear in my mind that I select from the material I already have, what I need for its realisation.
In 'Je d'histoires', though the texts were already about love and war, after the summer 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon, I wrote a new text on war.
That new text, which is an extrapolation of a situation revealing the anxiety and fears of the narrator, is inspired by the writings of Henri Michaux in his beautiful book 'La nuit remue'. I also added a new sequence filmed this summer, a view of Beirut after Israeli's bombing. Though I can't define specifically the inspiration for 'Je d'histoires', I can say that my work in general is very inspired, (though this may be unnoticeable), by Chris marker and Andrei Tarkovski.

What attracts you about the process of art?

What attracts me in the process of art is the possibility to express a vision of the world around and within me, by creating a place, (piece), that has its proper space and time, therefore that is unique.

Another idea that attracts me is the process of collecting material, and in doing so, of having a diagnosis of our time.
When collecting images or testimonies, we keep a trace, and even before it goes through any transformation, I find it important to record our present.
Of course, how this material will be used later makes the whole difference.

The process of creation, of giving life to a work, is very exciting and though it has a repetition scheme, it always seems to be unique and unprecedented.
I feel that in order to create a piece, I (and most artists) almost always have to go through an exhausting struggle: searching, doubting, trying to simplify, to find a logic, to edit down, to let time pass, to accept transformation, to fight a sudden 'repulsion' for the piece, etc.
That 'struggle' is precisely the most interesting part because its forces me to go further in my thoughts and reflection and it leads me to understand better myself and what is around me.
It is an incredible feeling to see an idea or an image transforming with time into a piece that one can never entirely foresee and that can actually reach out to others. To take a piece from a personal ground to another 'place' where it can encounter others, is for me the most important part of the process in art.

After the recent war, I thought a lot about what one can do in the context of war or political and economical instability, and how to approach life, but also what position to take. Most of these questions I thought were resolved many years ago. Should I continue to make art? Should I engage in NGOs to help? Should I belong to, or maybe create a political party? Should I leave the country? Should I have kids in such a world?
It became even clearer to me that the only valid and worthy realm is the one of art and thought. If this country or region was to disappear, nothing would be left of the shallow discourses of our politicians, and maybe not much would be remembered of the 15 years of civil war in the larger scale of history, if it wasn't for works of art, films and writings that kept a trace of it, recounted each in their way, but also reflected on what happened here, therefore transcending this reality and taking it beyond our times.
So, art is not only an attraction but rather the only way now for me to be in this world.

Tell me about your future projects

I am now working on 'Nights and Days': a series of works under the same title which are related to the summer 2006 War: One short video, one series of prints and one video installation. They mainly reflect on the ideas of passage of time during war, of beauty revealing violence and they also question the relation between sound and image.
I intend to continue working on the series 'Sleep' as welI to start a new project: 'Still life I - Once upon a time', where I will collect archival objects from friends and use them as the starting points for fictional narratives. The images of the objects and the texts will each become part of an incomplete story.