RSS feed


Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

Notice: Undefined variable: storify in /vhost/vhost14/c/u/l/ on line 37

An interview by Elisa Adami, writer and curator; co-director of Mnemoscape

Part I: On Photography, Images and Revelations

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Postcards of War, second part of the project Wonder Beirut, series #2/18, (1997-2006)

Elisa Adami: It’s always difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps, a good place to start is Wonder Beirut (1997 – 2006) – a long-term, multilayered project that has always fascinated me for the way in which it enacts a profound meditation on the role of photography in a situation of war and violence. Would you like to tell me something about it?

Joana Hadjithomas: Wonder Beirut is a project that we started in 1998 and that took many different forms and directions. At first we started producing Postcards of War; the other iterations (The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer and Latent Images) emerged organically from this first intention. We started by inventing the character of Abdullah Farah, a fictional photographer that had taken photographs used for some postcards of Beirut in the 1960s, so contributing to create an ideal image of the city in the past, and that had then started to burn these same images, in order to conform them better to the present reality of war and destruction. The invention of Farah was not meant for us as a trick to explore the slippery terrain between fiction and reality; but it stemmed from our practice as filmmakers. Although films and artworks, still today, have different channels of circulation and distribution, we have always endeavoured to create links between our practice as filmmakers and as artists – we think they are both part of the same practice.

We thought that the attributing these images to Abdullah Farah, as well as building his personal story, would enable us to present these images in a stronger way, than to simply show them with our names in the present. We didn’t want to guile people into believing that this character was real. For us, it was clear from the beginning that he was a fictional character. We didn’t want to play with the relativism of truth, something that we see happening, for instance, in other artworks. We were more interested in the idea of creating a fictional character and, little by little, we created ourselves part of the latent images that we would later attribute to him. It was as if, at the same time, we were impersonating Abdullah Farah; we were acting as if we were him when we were taking images. And we were personifying him with an actor, acting for us. A very interesting process for us.

EA: Then, the project of Latent Images started to take shape.

JH: Yes. It was a very organic process. At that time, we would take photographs without sending the rolls immediately to the lab to be developed. So the rolls started piling up, and we would write down dates and notes, in order to situate them, to remember what the photographs were of. And little by little, we began doing it in a more organized way and writing more and more. It was very interesting to write these images. We had always been interested in the state of latency, and we were thinking about how to give power back to images especially in a place such as Lebanon and in an historical moment in which so many images circulated. So this became a real practice: we had a camera that we used only to take this kind of photographs. Gradually the project became a diary of our life, of Beirut, of how the city was evolving, of our neighbourhood. We decided to insert Abdullah Farah in this personal diary, to play his life story instead of ours, because we were interested in his character and didn’t want to be too egocentric. Also we thought that a personal diary was an interesting device when placed next to a more collective, and historical or sociological diary. At the same time, we were pursuing and experimenting with an idea that we had about photography.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, Artist Book, 2010

EA: When you described how Wonder Beirut came about in this very organic way, I couldn’t stop thinking how the piece is so much related to the way in which analogue photography works. In analogue photography, you don’t see the image straight away as you can do with a digital camera. So the latency is part of how the medium works. I’ve always been intrigued by the specific engagement with the medium of analogue photography in all the different chapters of Wonder Beirut. I know that the piece is presented through other mediums – multimedia installation, performance, book format. But it’s conceptually tied to the history of chemical-based photography. And part of what your work does, is to “re-invent the medium” as Rosalind Krauss would say. To use the medium to produce images and evidences of history in a different way. Krauss’s notion of reinventing the medium is explicitly linked to technological obsolescence, as it involves appropriating outmoded objects so to ignite their revolutionary potential. Analogue photography is an obsolete technology, that you reclaim and re-invent to give an alternative historical account of the civil wars in Lebanon.

JH: Exactly. For us, Wonder Beirut, its three parts, are all totally related to analogue photography, to a reflection on how photography has evolved and changed so much. Of course today it wouldn’t be possible to do a project like that.

Everything we do – whether sculpture or video – is totally related to photography; because we were trained as photographers. When we started working, we didn’t really plan to do art – we didn’t study art or cinema. We started making images in Beirut at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. At first we wanted to take as many images as possible, so to record and keep traces of the war; but also to record the rapid change of the city in the postwar period, the way in which the traces of war were swiftly erased by projects of urban renewal. We did not want to show violence or destruction, but to consider how violence and destruction affect representation in itself; how they affect the way in which we write a story, we take images. What kind of heroes can one put in films in a particular historical moment? This is why Abdullah Farah was very interesting for us. It allowed us to think about what kind of film or what kind of representation we could give of the situation after the civil war. We took so many photographs and we analysed them through contact sheets – another of those overlooked objects that surround analogue photography. Contact sheets became very important for us and we worked with them explicitly in Latent Images, transforming them into the textual notes that constitute the only access to the images.

EA: Much has been said and written on how your work, as well as that of your fellow artists in Lebanon, expresses a “mistrust for the image as a reliable document of history” (Suzanne Cotter) and performs a critique and deconstruction of representation. This in turn is related to a mass-media landscape in which truth is often instrumentally fabricated and the credibility of visual documents is often questioned. The iconoclastic gestures in Wonder Beirut – burning negatives, not developing photographs so to withdraw them from circulation – seem to confirm such an interpretation. And yet, while the iconic dimension of photography – its figurative side – is evidently under duress in your works, its indexical dimension seems instead to be emphasized. It seems to me that you are engaged in an attempt to reinstate the indexical bond with the real, beyond the manipulations of the image.

KJ: We wrote a text, still unpublished, on the importance of photography in our work. In this text, we explain how all our work – not just the photographic work – is related to this relation to the real. For instance, in the film Around the Pink House (1999), at a certain moment, two characters are standing in front of a wall, and they say: “this is not an image; it is a trace.” For us, the iconic aspect of the photographic image is very important because it allows recognition and remembrance. But, the indexical aspect is also very interesting. For us, the relation to the real is always surprising. Sometimes you don’t recognize the trace at first, but it will become effective after a while. This happens for example when the image is about to be revealed, so that its meaning will become more obvious only afterwards. There might be a delay or a revelation under different conditions; there can be a change in the meanings of the same image, in different times and places. This is the reason why we called some of our works “symptomatic”: they are indexical.

JH: I would like to add in response to the first part of your question, and to what has generally been seen as an iconoclastic gesture in our work – a challenge to images –, that, in fact, our relation with images is a little bit different from that of other artists of our generation. For us, even if there is suspicion around the image, we still produce them. Of course we are attentive to how one reads an image. The questions around representation and the attempt to transcend definitions, have always been central to our practice. But for us, this has to do more with how you can produce images today. We are interested in the idea of “producing” images; we put images always at the centre of our reflection. Ours is not just a critical attitude: after analysing images and representations, we try to produce something; we always explore the possibilities that we have. How to give back some power to an image? How to put the image at the centre of questioning? In 2002, we participated in an exhibition entitled Iconoclash. That exhibition shows well how when we destroy images, we are also creating images; and that’s exactly what we did: we created a different kind of images. It’s about how you question the gaze, how you shift perspective by recreating something.

KJ: We came to make images after a long process of critique. Then we started to produce things that were not just critique but propositions: attempts to get out of a state of crisis.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lasting Images, Video Installation, Super 8 mm film transferred on DVD, 2003

EA: Can we talk a bit about Lasting Images. In Wonder Beirut, it’s true, you create new images; yet there is a process of negation of the photograph: first by burning the image-simulacrum of the pre-war postcards of Beirut, and then by not developing Farah’s documentary snapshots. In Lasting Images instead the photographic image (a film, in this case) returns as trace and does so with a new “aura”. It is as if, with these images that refuse to disappear, you had find a way to give back power to the image, to restitute to it an affective pathos, and I dare to say, credibility.

KJ: For us this has to do with questions of revelation. The word “revelation” points to a technical aspect related to photographic technology. It is always strange when you are digging to search something, or developing a research around an idea, like we were doing with this idea of latency, exploring it in many films, in many scripts, and artistic experimentations, and then suddenly you stumble across this latent film, this spontaneous materialization of the same idea… Lasting Images concerns a very personal family story: we developed what was probably the last film shot by my uncle who went missing during the wars. So it was very emotional also.

JH: This is a moment when you really don’t know what to do with it: should you keep the film latent or should you reveal it? For us, this was not something conceptual. We had this latent film, it was probably the last film that Khalil’s uncle took, it was not developed, it was surely damaged, and the question was: what can we do with it? It’s similar to the question you ask yourself when you want to take a picture: what kind of picture? A picture of what? It’s a very practical question. So, when we developed this film, we had this faith that something would get out of the whiteness. That’s why we scanned each image and then re-worked it. This was really a moment of revelation: images came back to haunt us. It was really important to try everything to bring them back. And by bringing back those images, we had to accept the idea that we could be haunted. For many years and in many of our works, we were getting to grips with how to deal with the missing. In our film A Perfect Day (2006), this is very clear in the attitude of the mother and the son towards the absence of the father. Should one keep waiting for someone who went missing long before, so keeping open the wounds of the war, or should one let go, put the ghosts to rest? This was a difficult question to ask.

KJ : When we started working on Lasting images, we had the image of the ghost or revenant in mind. The revenant always returns. Yet, little by little, something changed in our relation with and consideration of this ghost, in the revelation of something that was still embroiled in the work of mourning.

Different images have different conditions of revelation. If you compare Lasting Images to Latent Images, you see how some of the latent images could be lasting images, if there was a ghost haunting them and bringing them back to us.

You have also to articulate the meaning of Lasting Images in relation with Faces, a project in which we tested the limits of photography, by recording the various stages of progressive disappearance of the images of dead people in posters, that are hung on street lampposts, in places where none can touch them, so it’s really the weather that erases the images. These too are ghost-images or images of ghosts. We asked drawers and graphic designers to draw these posters according to two techniques – the study and the sketch. So you can read this either as a record of disappearance or a reconstitution. But there is also another potential meaning: we can imagine that these ghosts are asking us to forget them so that they can rest. So the images in Faces are the exact opposite of the Lasting Images.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Faces, Tryptic, Series of 43 digital prints, photography and drawing, each approx 50 cm x 35cm, 2009

JH : In Faces, we wondered how to read these images. We saw them disappearing and we did an intervention on them by bringing back some of their features with drawings. And yet we still had doubts: shall we let go of these ghosts instead? Is it possible that by disappearing from the images, those people were asking us “to let them go”?

In A Perfect Day, we used the photograph of Antoine, a person who died after the war, to illustrate the missing notice for the character of the father in the newspapers as well as in other images that appear in certain sequences in the film. We had obtained the consent to do so from the wife and the daughters, but we didn’t know that Antoine had re-married. His second wife, Aida, saw the film and she phoned the distributor outraged, asking that the photograph of her late husband be removed from it. That image, a false documentation, was one of the few that we had fabricated in a film that was otherwise shot in a very documentary style, in location, without extras and on the run. And yet, it was seen by Aida as a piece of reality, and the film also turned into an evidence in a legal proceeding!

In the performance that we did afterwards Aida, Save me, we discuss all that but also the fact that when something, an image, comes back, haunts you, you have to follow it. The ideas that we have on photography are never preconceived or theoretical. We read, write and think a lot about photography. But it’s the practice, it’s life, that leads us to do things; it’s the encounters. This is what happened when we found Khalil’s uncle latent film or what happened with the story with Aida. Sometimes images just come back to haunt you.

KJ: Even if you don’t want it.

JH: You just have to accept that.

KJ: The works emerge from encounters and events that disturb us and lead us to new places and new relations.

Excerpt from the newspaper insert of a fictitious notice of disappearance used for the film A Perfect Day (2006). Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Aida Save Me, performance lecture, 2009

EA: I can see some continuities in yours works, certain themes come back. Does this happen because of such serendipitous encounters?

KJ: There will be a narrative more than a continuity; sometimes there will be a discontinuity instead. Until 2006, latency could still be seen as a strategy of existing; but after the 2006 war, we felt that it was necessary to fight for another kind of territory.[1] We started to work much more on the notion of territory, not intended as a geography but as a temporal place. Films like I Want to See (2008), The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012) and all the projects that are part of I Stared at Beauty So Much are not only about latency, but a step elsewhere.


Part II: On Delays, Uncomformities and How to Write Entangled Histories

EA: I am wondering how the passing of time impacts on your work. The idea of latency implies that an amount of time elapses between the occurrence of an event and any possible understanding (or even manifestation) of it. This is evident in Latent Images, but emerges also in the film Khiam, which was shot in two different moments – the second after the destruction of the prison camp.[2] Is this strategy of deferral, this injection of a cognitive delay, a necessary stage to gain some knowledge of the past? And is it part of your working method as well?  

JH: We often revisit what we have done. For instance we did Circle of Confusion in 1997 and then more than 12 years later we returned to it with History of the circle of confusion. We did a second part to Khiam, as you mentioned. Wonder Beirut also consists of many reiterations. We like to go back and re-question what we have done, to rethink what we were doing at another moment in time. I think this is so because our main concern is with the writing of history and the construction of imaginaries and representation; and how you have constantly to fight to avoid cliches.

Even in the way we talk about art, we are really careful not to take on the usual tropes of the art discourse to discuss our artworks; but we rather always keep the idea of research in the foreground. We also like to change our views on an event. As we said earlier, our relation to ghosts and latency, has evolved through time; we are always requestioning it. So I think the delay you are talking about, is very important. We shouldn’t be too close to the event; we need to take the distance that is necessary to be really able to look at something.

KJ: For us latency is not a concept, it’s a situation. It’s not that we take a concept and try to illustrate it through other things. When we made one of our solo shows, we noticed that most of our works had two dates: for instance Khiam 2000/2007, Wonder Beirut 1996/2006. This was an attempt on our part to experiment certain things at a particular time. So it was the action of time that was having effects on the work. This was also because we were trying to deal with our present and things were changing, so the work by itself was changing, its meanings were. When we return to a work in a different moment, we requestion, reedit it, thus changing it. It’s like layering different strata on the same body of work. Perhaps this has something to do with our concern on how things can resist time, how things can endure in fragile conditions. Joana and I are not trying to make monuments; but rather we build processes of rethinking. We question our positions.

EA: So when you return to these works, their meaning is not the same, because the present situation has changed: there are new urgencies, new problems. The works are not stable but they live in a state of flux. The present time in which we interpret them changes their meaning too. You mentioned earlier the 2006 war and how it changed so many things… Your work has often been considered in the contexts of attempts to critically interrogate and reconstruct the history of the Lebanese civil wars. Yet, you have also stressed that there tends to be a confusion between history and memory. Can you tell me more about the difference between these two terms?

KJ: We are part of a generation that grew up during the wars and in their aftermath. At that time many people were saying that there were no memories of the wars, and for us this was a huge misrepresentation, because actually we were saturated by memories and images. There was not a lack of documents and images, for us it was exactly the opposite. There were too many and we were starting to be overwhelmed by all this. So the problem for us was more the articulation of these memories. How are we going to index them; how to articulate and edit them? So we realized that we were dealing more with the notion of history rather than memory. For years, we thought that we had problems with the writing of our history because of the violence and the different wars that occurred. This particular situation created a particular relation to history. We don’t have grand narratives; and so we worked with what we called “anecdotes”: small, secret stories.

But even this is changing now. In our latest project, Unconformities, that we presented for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, we ended up doing something very different. For the project, we literally descended into the substrata of three cities: Athens, Beirut and Paris. In Beirut, we noticed that the destruction of the city, not just caused by the wars but also by the postwar real estate reconstruction, enabled us to make archeological and geological research. So today the ancient history of Lebanon, of Beirut especially, is better known than the history of Paris. Strangely, to be able to build this knowledge, we had to destroy the city.

EA: The destruction of the city is also related to a neoliberal political-economic system that has over-written the old city…

KJ: Of course, this is related to political and economic issues and we started acting in the city in reaction to that in the 90’s. But even without making any judgement, just sticking to the facts: they destroyed the city to build new buildings; by doing this they were able to study the ground and the underground.

EA: That is the slogan of Solidere, no?[3] The Ancient City of the Future, so you don’t have the middle ground. You are left with the ancient times and the future, but you erased the recent past.

 KJ: True, but things seem to be more complex. Archeologists today think of the past differently than they did. For a long time, people saw an archeological dig as an accumulation of different layers. About Beirut, you would say that it was a city that had been destroyed seven times and rebuilt eight. This was its mythology and we were always very critical about it. But actually today in archeology, you don’t talk about strata and layers, you talk about actions; and an action can have an impact on several strata. Actions act not only on the anthropic layer, meaning archeology, but have also an effect on geological layers. And so we are propelled into the anthropocene thinking. You see how our conception of history has shifted from one position to a 180° different position.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Uncomformities, Installation View, Centre Pompidou, 2017. The installation consists of Palimpsest (HD Video), Time Capsules (Core samples in experimental resin) and Zig Zag Over Time (Photography, drawing and text).

JH : An unconformity is “a surface between successive strata representing a missing interval in the geologic record of time”. Extracted from construction sites and soon meant to disappear, those re-sculpted core samples underline the invisible remains and transformations of buried cities and of subterranean worlds.

The “unconformities” – temporal ruptures, disasters, regenerations and geological disorders – unveil the constant cycles of construction and destruction that appear like palimpsests, with each civilization reusing the stones of the last. The recompositions question the impact of human action on the environment, but also possible narratives and representations of our erratic history: History appears in non-linear way, but as actions, reconstitutions, gaps…

EA: This is fascinating as it points to the difficulties but also potential of writing a history made of gaps. Many of your previous works have also dealt with perceptual gaps in the record of history, places or stories that albeit real and extant were kept in a state of invisibility because of certain political and historical conditions. I’m thinking of the invisibility of Khiam and by extension the South of the country under Israeli occupation until May 2000, but also of the total oblivion to which the extraordinary story of the Lebanese Rocket Society was doomed before your re-discovery. Part of the work you do is to construct new modes and forms of visualization that rupture such states of invisibility.

JH: These two situations are very different. In Khiam there was a problem of unrepresentability: you have a detention camp but you don’t have any representation of it. You have an experience of detention but you can neither understand nor represent it. When we began working on Khiam, of course we were very concerned and engaged politically; but we were also driven by the question: how do you represent what is not representable? How do you evoke a place of which there are no image? For us, this was very close to what we were doing, at the same time, with Latent Images. If you talk about something, if you evoke it, an image will be produced in the mind of the person who is listening to it. The more you are specific in the description, the more you give possibilities. It’s an open window. Through a very dry filmic set up – former detainees look straight into the camera and just describe the experience of detention and those objects that they made during their detention and that you never see before the end of the film – we were trying to see how evocation functions. This was not a representation that had withdrawn like Jalal Toufic would say; it was actually impossible to access the place. Yet, in 2000, when we made the first half of the film, the detention camp was still there, so the possibility to access it was still conceivable. But in 2006, when the camp, which had served as a museum for six years, was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force, things were different: it was not possible to go back anymore; no traces were left. So other questions became more relevant, questions about reconstitution, memory, and the strength of imaginaries: how do you remember without a physical place? Is it important to have a physical place? Is it possible to reconstitute the place, to give visibility to what is not visible anymore? Will this reconstitution be nothing but a fake? And how do you reconstitute it? Do you base yourself on the memories of the detainees? But these are often contradictory. For example, a very interesting part in the film, it’s when Soha Bachara describes how she was always looking at the corridor from the small slit under the door of her tiny cell; she saw the corridor from that perspective for more than 8 years.[4] So when she went out and saw the corridor, she said what I think is a very interesting sentence: that nothing could replace her vision of when she was in the detention cell. And even if she knows that that’s not the reality…

EA: …that’s her reality.                            

JH: Yeah. So if you want to reconstitute that, you will make use of a memory that is already very subjective. For us it was important to make the second part of the film, to think: how do you write this history and who is writing it? Is it the witnesses? And when they disappear what will happen? This has also to do with how you index all these information.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Khiam, Video, 2000-2007

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Khiam, Video, 2000-2007

KJ: I would like to add a few things. After the dismantling of the camp, we were able to go there. So Joana and I went there and took pictures. It was a moment when many people were taking pictures of the former detention camps. So we took them but we didn’t develop them – the rolls are part of Latent images. Soon after the camp was destroyed, we were invited to do an exhibition and we started to think whether, now that the camp had been destroyed, the right condition to reveal these images had come. But we thought that if we did reveal them, our relation to photography would be lead to a completely nostalgic relation to the past. This was not the solution: the condition of revelation is not the missing.

This led us to think of something else, related to the Objects of Khiam. The Objects of Khiam are very strange artworks because the artists who produced them, namely the detainees, considered them artworks. But the detainees consider themselves artists only during their detention, they don’t see themselves as artists before or after. It is because of the circumstances of the production that these objects are considered artworks. So the situation, the context, changes the meaning of a production, of a knowledge.

Khiam was unavailable twice: first because of the political situation; and then because suddenly another reality – an image of war and destruction – covered the first one. The detainees were very worried that their history had been covered by another history.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Objects of Khiam, photograph of a string of beads made from olive stones and thread in 1999.

JH: The Lebanese Rocket Society was different. Something real had been completely removed from the imaginary; it was so absent that when we brought it back, people thought it was a fiction. The perception that we had of ourselves had totally changed in the last 50 years. Because of this change, the representation that we had of ourselves could not include anymore a successful scientific project. This was very interesting: it was like a withdrawal of the imaginary, an impossibility to represent ourselves like that. We, Khalil and I, don’t work on the past in a nostalgic mode; we are usually suspicious of all those works that express a fascination about archiving, especially in the Arab world. Of course we need this to a certain extent; but we want to be totally in the contemporary debate, with a contemporary way of thinking. So for us part of what was really interesting in the Lebanese Rocket Society was the way in which the members of the society considered themselves as totally contemporary: sharing the same time with the rest of the world, exactly in the same way that, we, Khalil and I, and others, share this territory of art, that transcends geographical ties.

Photograph by E. Temerian of the launch of Cedar III, Dbayeh, Lebanon, 1962. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society, 2013

KJ: The Lebanese Rocket Society was composed by people who were for the most part not Lebanese, but nevertheless it is called “Lebanese.”

EA: They were based at the Armenian University, right?

JH: That’s correct.

EA: And you restored this story to where it belongs by placing a replica of the rocket in the courtyard of the university.

JH: We offered this rocket to the university because we wanted to give to it a physical presence, a visibility; so that people could requestion things. What is really important for us is to take something from the past and reactivate it today; rather than nostalgically recover it. Politically, it’s very important to always reactivate things in the present. There is a whole discourse about how Arabs were and how they are today. Even in the art world there is always this little orientalist way of looking at our practice with a kind of indulgence that I’m really very critical of. So for us it was really important to reclaim this story and to place the rocket in the university. And what is incredible is that today many people in Beirut think that the rocket has always been there, since the 1960s! Once a taxi driver told me all the story of the Lebanese Rocket Society; and as we passed by the university, he said: “you know this rocket was here in the 1960s.” At first, I wanted to intervene and say: “no, actually we made this rocket!” And then I thought, no, this is really more interesting, this is great!

EA: You really did change the perception of history!

JH: Yes, this went even further than what we wanted!

 Replica of the rocket Cedar IV, in front of the Haigazian University, Beirut. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, The Lebanese Rocket Society, Part 1: Cedar IV, A Reconstitution, 2011.

EA: Whereas your early work has mostly been concerned with the recent history of Lebanon, later work, as if propelled by the rocket of the Lebanese Rocket Society, has gained a more expanded geographical reach and a larger historical scope. From the 1960s – the time in which the Lebanese Rocket Society was founded and operative – you have moved back in time to the age of the Ottoman Empire. Can you tell me something about this research and how it connects, I think quite urgently, to the present moment?

JH: We are very interested in the fact that strangely there is so little discussion and interest around the Ottoman Empire. Whereas to understand better the political aspects of the region, it is really crucial to know what happened during the 400 years of the Ottoman occupation and colonization, and just after the fall of the Empire. Our research started from a personal story, as my family comes from Izmir, former Smyrna, from which they were obliged to flee in 1922, when the Greek population was evacuated from Turkey. For a very long time, I wanted to explore our relation with this part of the world and its history. The fact that Etel Adnan, who is a close friend, shares this same history was very important to make the film Ismyrna. Of course, we were interested also in tackling the idea of cosmopolitanism: Some say that the Ottoman Empire was cosmopolitan and that the region has changed afterwards. We wanted to deconstruct and analyse this idea. This was never an ideal moment; there was simply another notion of fragmentation than today. The possibility of a different relation to identity was central in this research in response to what can be seen today as a rebirth of nationalism, communitarianism and identity crisis. Or to what we see in the art world, where non-Western artists are often clustered according to their national or geographical identity, in a very problematic way. In Ismyrna, what Etel and me are trying to say is that you can put down this suitcase with all these identities and traumas related to your family, and start something else. It’s interesting that Etel’s family and mine were on opposite sides. Her father was an officer in the Ottoman Empire Army; my grandfather had to escape because of that same army. In the film, we hardly talk about it. This was never an issue for us, because we tried instead to reinvent our relation with others, with a territory, with memory, with trauma and history. And this has little to do with what we inherited. We talk a lot about what we had inherited, in order to reinvent this heritage.

EA: In Ismyrna, you often use the cinematic strategy of superimpositions: you superimpose images and narratives of the past onto the present, but also superimpose two distinct life stories – yours, Joana, and Etel’s – that are connected by a shared heritage of loss and dispossession. This merging of temporal planes and personal stories is an effective way of provoking identification – the barriers between past and present, me and the other seem to collapse. And again we are returned to the present.

JH: Right. Yeah superimposition gives also the idea of layers… And when I went to Ismyrna it was the present that was there, it was not the past. The corniche were bursting with life, there were people around. It was the present what we were linked with; and suddenly I just felt that we should talk of it in a different way.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Ismyrne, HD video, Still, 2016.

EA: Your work has a strong literary component. The fable-like story of Abdullah Farah, your attention for the vernacular literary form of the anecdote. Generally these are narrative forms, yet in your recent work you have started working with poetry – Constantine Cavafy in Waiting for the Barbarians and Etel Adnan in Ismyrna. Can you tell me something about this shift?

KJ: For us poetry is still a narrative. A shorter one, perhaps. But anecdotes as well are most of the times quite brief. So the question is why poetry now? It came because in this troubled times, we were thinking about the word “barbarians”; we had to deal with this word. So we went back to Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, but also to the definition of this word in the Hellenic Empire. At that time the barbarian was not a person from a different race or religion, but just a person who was not able to speak Greek. If you are not able to speak the language, than there is no more democracy. And who is the one who works with the language and in the language? It’s the poet. So the poet appears to us as the opposite of the barbarian: he is the one who is working on the language. But the narrative is still very important. We are in a terrible need of poetry.

EA: What are you working on at the moment? What are your future plans?

KJ : We are still exploring part of the Unconformity project with a new research around future materiality. And we are also preparing a book on the Lebanese Rocket Society, spying, Science fiction and utopias. And, we are in the pre-production of a feature film, a fiction based on notebooks that Joana wrote to her best friend, daily, from 1982 till 1988.



[1]      The 2006 Lebanon War, known in Lebanon as the July War and in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, was a 34-day military conflict fought in Lebanon, Northern Israel and the Golan Heights. Precipitated by Hezbollah cross-border raids, to which Israel responded with airstrikes, artillery fire and a ground invasion of Southern Lebanon, the conflict continued until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect in the morning on 14 August 2006. Due to unprecedented Iranian military support to Hezbollah before and during the war, some consider it the first round of the Iran-Israel proxy conflict, rather than a continuation of the Arab-Israel conflict.

[2]      Khiam was a detention and interrogation camp in Southern Lebanon under the control of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), an Israeli proxy militias, that remained in use from 1985 until Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, and the subsequent collapse of the SLA. The use of torture and other serious human rights abuses in the facility were reported by several non-governmental organizations (Human Rights Watch 1999; Amnesty International 2000). After the withdrawal, the prison camp was converted into a museum by Hezbollah; yet, during the 2006 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed the museum, allegedly to eliminate all evidence of the tortures and mistreatment committed in the facilities.

[3]      Solidere is a Lebanese joint-stock company in charge of planning and redeveloping Beirut Central Districts following the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil Wars the construction company that was appointed with the reconstruction of the city centre. The company was founded and spearheaded in 1994 by the then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (1992-1998; 2000-2005). Far from uncontroversial, the reconstruction was a lucrative business and an opportunity of self-enrichment for the members of the government and their wide circle of business associates. For a thorough analysis of the reconstruction plans and the role they played in the formation of the new political-economic arrangement of postwar Lebanon, see Saree Makdisi, “Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 660-705.

[4]      Soha Bechara is an ex-Lebanese National Resistance fighter who was captured in 1988, at the age of twenty one, for a failed attempt to assassinate the general of the SLA, Antoine Lahad. She was held in Khiam for ten years, six years of which spent in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, without being charged or tried. She was finally released on the 3rd of September 1998, following an intense Lebanese and European campaign. Her autobiography, Resistance: My Life for Lebanon, was published in 2000 and translated into English in 2003.