Alessandra Cianetti: Let’s start from why you are here in London today 29th February. You are presenting the project ‘Gardens Speak’ at the Battersea Arts Centre whose website describes it as ‘an interactive sound installation containing the oral histories of 10 ordinary people who have been buried in the gardens of Syrian homes. Each narrative has been carefully constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased to retell their stories as they themselves would have recounted it.’ Gardens Speak was first presented at Artsadmin in 2014 and then has been touring in Australia, the UK, Germany and Romania. Do you think the work and its reception has been changing over the years due also to the increasing exacerbation of the Syrian conflict?
Tania El Khoury: The show at Artsadmin was a preview of only two days just to test it out as the work is interactive, and needed to be tested with an audience. We had colleagues and friends coming to Artsadmin to see the work and from then we developed it further, taking into consideration people’s opinions on the general experience, but also on technical stuff around the instructions because this show happens without a performer, and the audience activates the piece. The BAC shows are the first public opening in London and it runs from the 2nd to the 19th of March.
‘Gardens Speak’ has been touring and since last year it has been picked up more, and this is a work whose reception depends on the space and the place it is shown. There is a big interest in Syrian people’s stories. I think there is a need for stories of individual people living in Syria. Therefore, some people feel that this piece is timely. I showed it in Munich where there is a huge population of Syrian asylum seekers; it felt relevant to show ‘Garden Speaks’ there because many Syrians came to see it and engaged with it, but there were also many people from Munich who wanted to know more about the situation in Syria. The piece reminded us what and who is behind what in Europe is now called the ‘Refugees Crisis’. How did people become refugees in the first place? This piece is mainly about the first periods in the Syrian uprising and tells the stories of people who participated in protests – whether they called themselves revolutionaries, activists or just normal people who were helping – and were all consequently killed by the regime. It is actually important to remember that. Since 2013, I had many interviews with people, activists, and artists from Syria and the ten stories that are part of ‘Gardens Speak’ were mainly told to myself and the Syrian writer Keenana Issa by close friends and families of the deceased.
AC: This work is directly linked in terms of telling stories of Syrian refugees with the 2013 commission by Spielart Festival in Munich ‘Stories of Refuge’. An audio-video participative installation that ‘tells the story of three Syrian asylum seekers who fled Syria and sought refuge in Munich’ after having paid a lot, both financially and emotionally, to be smuggled into Europe and risking their lives. As you describe it on your website, ‘we gave each of the three participants a small discreet video camera that they smuggled into their camps, and asked them to film a day in their lives as asylum seekers in Munich’. Moreover, the audience was asked to lie on bunk beds and was also able to leave some notes and thoughts in black notebooks left in each bed. How did you involve the participants, and what was the value for them of being part of this project? How was the audience response to the piece?
TEK: I met various people in Munich and not all of them were keen to tell their stories for various reasons. Some people had just arrived and were worried about talking about what had happened to them and by that maybe endanger family members who are still in Syria. Others were worried about their legal status in Munich because in many situations there are details you focus on and others you might not tell to the authorities, the narratives you share with your friends are definitely different from the ones you tell to the authorities of the country you would like to be hosted by; there are various and conflicting narratives at play in these situations. In the end I worked with three people who were willing to tell us their stories. Their identity was hidden and it was an open process; they chose how to present their stories. We built a relationship with the participants, as they understood that I come first from a position of solidarity rather than from a journalistic approach.
When we presented ‘Stories of Refuge’ in 2013 there was less attention on the topic as it wasn’t at the centre of the public discourse. Members of the audience were really sweet leaving tips and suggestions to the refugees, telling them that they were welcome, and that Munich gets better with time. I think it definitely would have been different if the piece was presented now in Munich.
AC: Your exploration of the migratory condition started early in your career, let’s think for example of your ‘Leave to Remain’ piece of 2010, were you explored your own tale as an immigrant in the UK. In light of recent international developments in terms of people fleeing zones of conflict and border crossing, which are major themes your practice is addressing at the moment, how do you think your work has been changing over the years?
TEK: ‘Leave to Remain’ was more of a personal story and using something autobiographical is quite different from talking about big numbers of people fleeing wars. You don’t want to self-victimise and you want to be aware of your privileges, because at the end of the day I was able to be here and live here, study and get citizenship. Each piece really depends on the space and place it is presented. ‘Stories of Refuge’ definitely would have been different if it was presented here in the UK and now. In the UK there is obviously what the government’s stand is with the Home Secretary Theresa May’s speeches that show a lot of pride in closing borders, and she is even calling for a change of the legal framework around refugee status. So my work depends on the context, the space and whose story I am telling.
I don’t think that the passage from more autobiographical works to pieces such as ‘Gardens Speak’ and ‘Stories of Refuge’ is a change in my politics in terms of being against borders and being against discrimination over borders, but now there is more urgency in discussing this because people are actually fleeing wars in which a lot of these big governments are involved directly or indirectly. There is a human responsibility, a political responsibility and an artistic responsibility to respond from the point of view of the people telling their stories.
AC: You are the co-founder of the Dictaphone group that, with your colleague researcher and architect Abir Saksouk, ‘re-questions, as citizens, the relationship to the space of the city, with a focus on public spaces’. How have notions of citizens and boundaries between public and private been addressed by the work of your group in its recent works?
TEK: One of the last projects we have recently done is in collaboration with a local youth group and activists in Sidon, a seashore city in the south of Lebanon. We worked with local people’s relations to the sea, which are significantly changing due to big governmental and private projects on the seashore and big construction projects.
The relationship between the Lebanese people and the sea is a common theme of many of our projects where we see access to the sea as a human right. This project we run with youth groups and activists was also about telling stories of spaces through people’s past and current uses of public spaces on the seashore. We also opened questions about the future of these spaces, reimagining them and imagining how people’s relationship with them might change because of the construction plans. We are also working on a city walk in Beirut called ‘Topography of Descent’, which took place in an area that has been experiencing urban transformation. The streets we took the audience through have old houses that are threatened by demolition. And the previously co-existing social classes will now change with the rise of skyscrapers. Again, we tell the stories of contested spaces and contested events through the stories of marginalised groups and individuals.
One other example of Dictaphone group’s works around spaces and internal and external borders is ‘Nothing to Declare’, a research-based lecture performance that explores borders within Lebanon, those between Lebanon and its neighbours, and across the Arab world.
AC: On an image on your website there is a picture of a 2011 article you published in a Lebanese Newspaper called ‘What is Live Art?’ How would you reply now to that question? What is for you the value of live art interventions and performative installations in addressing the themes your political works talk about?
TEK: My interest in live art is linked to my interest in interactivity; live art allows certain interactivity with the audience that makes the discussion of political issues easier as it invites people to be involved, to participate in an embodied knowledge, to bear witness, like in ‘Gardens Speak’. To take sides, even. I think this is where the politics happens, and that is my interest in live art as a form that is not confined to a studio or a specific setting and that can happen in public spaces, always allowing a certain interactivity. I also see the Dictaphone group’s activities as live art, as research-based live art.
AC: Talking about live art scenes, I wonder what you think have been performers’ responses in Lebanon or Syria to the current situation. Are there any of your colleagues or any projects you would like to highlight?
TEK: I cannot think of names at the moment but I would like to see more involvement by artists. I know that there are a lot of artists that are physically going to places such as the Calais jungle for example to support refugees and that is of course very much needed. But I feel that it would also be interesting to see artists engaging with local politics in their own countries, discussing or opening up questions about their governments’ stands on refugees and also not taking them into yet another war. There is a lot of disconnection between what people and artists feel about borders, citizenship and refugees, and what governments are actually doing by closing off the borders, proposing changes to refugee status, which would be dangerous in the short and long term. I would like for this to be questioned and challenged in the arts. In Lebanon now probably half of the population is made up of refugees, so there is a lot of artists’ work done in collaboration with them. I don’t know whether they define themselves as live artists but there is a theatre group called Zoukak who have been doing work in collaboration with refugees. There are also Syrian theatre makers who do projects in refugee camps in Lebanon such as the playwright Mohammad Al Attar.
AC: What are you up to this year? What are you coming projects?
TEK: There is a work that I’m going to present in June at the Royal Court Theatre in London in which I am collaborating with a Palestinian Syrian artist that is called ‘As far as my fingertips take me’. It is a one-on-one installation performance, a sort of conversation that takes place between an audience member and a refugee through a wall. It is a commission by LIFT festival 2016 and the Royal Court Theatre happening on 9, 10 and 11 June.
Tania El Khoury is an artist working between London and Beirut. She creates interactive installations and challenging performances in which the audience is an active collaborator. Tania’s solo work has toured internationally, and has been recognized with the Total Theatre Innovation Award and the Arches Brick Award. Tania is currently working on a practice-based PhD between the Departments of Drama and Geography at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Her research and publications focus on Live Art in the time of Syrian uprisings. She is the co-founder of Dictaphone Group, a research and performance collective aiming at reclaiming public space in Lebanon. taniaelkhoury.com
Feautured image credits: ‘This Sea is Mine’ by Dictaphone Group. Photo by Housssam Mchaimesh