Tania El Khoury, a Lebanese-British artist who creates interactive performances and installations, is currently co-curating a festival on borders at Bard College.
Reflecting on site-specific performances that I have created or experienced as an audience member, I ask what was more visible, the performance or the site itself. The world may well feel like a stage, but its spaces are neither theaters nor galleries. To produce site-specific performances is to engage both directly and indirectly with the politics of the chosen space. We may start by asking the most obvious questions about a site, such as, what communities use it and how do they negotiate it? who owns the land? who feels entitled and/or invited to it? who feels alienated by/from it?
We will need to research the history of the chosen space, the laws that govern it, its past and current uses, and the various aspects of surveillance and security in both the formal and informal practices of control and sovereignty over the space. We will need to question the site’s accessibility and safety for marginalized bodies. Site-specificity calls for multidisciplinary research, often in collaboration or communication with urban activists, lawyers, urbanists, oral historians, geographers, and others.
I have found an approach to the site as a physical collaborator to be a useful research and artistic methodology. Key to this is to enter the space without predetermination or preconceptions. To listen to the site like we would listen to a human collaborator. The site becomes a material body made of smaller bodies, each responding and performing in their own way. The site functions with its own contradictions and internal struggles. It is always mutating, forcing us to respond, improvise, and become flexible. In this sense, it is crucial to work with what the site offers rather than regard it as an empty canvas. The role of the artist is not to tame, control, render invisible, and choreograph a site. It is also not to beautify the site or gentrify it. We must be wary of taking on the role of an occupier, a penetrator, a savior, an entrepreneur, or an intervener. It is perhaps useful to picture oneself as a body in a sea of bodies that form a space. I use the image of the sea intentionally here, as it is dynamic, fluid, and ever-changing in intensity, temperature, and color. The sea has also been the subject of contestation and border-imposing by greedy humans.
During the devising process of the site-specific performances I co-create as part of Dictaphone Group in Lebanon, we regularly use the notions of visibility and invisibility (that of the performers, the performance, and the site itself) as a direct response to the politics of a given space. The Dictaphone Group collective was born out of our need to question our relationship to public space in increasingly privatized and neoliberal Lebanese cities. Our work couples urban studies with live art practice, making site-specific performances as research on space. Working on contested sites in the city, we noticed that we appeared to the media as protestors, to invited audiences as performers, to passers-by as city dwellers, and to some authority figures as a potential threat. Our artistic form faces the choice of hiding behind a theatrical spectacle or blending into the city. We choose the latter, alternating between appearing and disappearing in the space whenever it is suitable.
For the performance This Sea Is Mine (2012), for example, we take the audience on a journey. With a local fisherman’s boat, we travel to several private resorts and attempt to swim in the sea in front of the resorts without paying the guest access fee. At one point, I stand on a resort’s floating jetty with a large Styrofoam sign that reads, “This Sea Is Mine.” The choice here is to place my body as a performer (and the bodies of the audience, should they choose to join) where it is not desired to appear (i.e., in an exclusive space when we haven’t paid to be there). The appearance is sudden, subtle, short, and visual. It is performed in silence, in a swimsuit and a floating device. For a few seconds, these elements form a visual confrontation, a protest, before the performer and the sign fade back into the sea. As we travel along Beirut’s seashore, we share stories of land theft, political corruption, and gentrification. We finish with a picnic on one of the last remaining open public spaces on the seashore, where we continue to share our research findings and listen to audience members, who add stories to an ever-growing exploration of this site. The work is an invitation for the audience to build a personal and collective memory with the contested space, hoping that this might implicate more people in resisting its closure.
During another of our projects, Nothing to Declare (2013), we follow discontinued train tracks past stations in Lebanon along three different routes that take us toward the country’s national borders. The project tells the history of the train system (including its infrastructure) in Lebanon to discuss both internal and international borders as well as failed state projects. As we follow the tracks, we record stories and landscapes that we then share with the public in a lecture-performance and a publication. During our journeys, we pass internal checkpoints, both marked and unmarked. We enter refugee camps, military zones, and otherwise secured areas while we film, sometimes on mobile phones and spy cameras. How we perform our gender, other identities, and politics differs every time we are stopped or questioned by the transportation authorities or the military at checkpoints. The ethical decision here is to perform self-imposed invisibility in order to challenge state-imposed invisibility of abandoned, contested, and marginal spaces in the country. This alternate appearance and disappearance contribute to making visible what authorities have spent significant energy and resources on making invisible.
In both of the abovementioned projects by Dictaphone Group as well as a number of site-specific performances I created as a solo artist, I employed invisibility as an aesthetic form. In Un-Marry Us (2017), a performance taking place on buildings’ rooftops in the old medina of Tunis, I collaborated with a women’s shelter and a group of LGBTQI++ activists living in the old medina, often undercover. The performers appeared on rooftops in front of an invited audience and onlookers, reminding the city that they exist. However, their identities and sometimes their faces were invisible for self-protection and security. This performance explored how the design of the old medina can provide a form of refuge for marginalized communities. Its rooftops are linked with each other, making it easy for people to flee. Its mazelike alleyways prevent cars from entering and strangers from finding their way around. In this performance, we understood the gift of invisibility provided by the site and we played along with it, rather than disturb it.
One might explore site-specificity in a spectacle of reinventing a public space. Alternatively, the exploration of invisibility within a site involves an understanding of the site’s aesthetic and political potential.