Our homes are places of safety and security, refuge and repose. It is in our homes, amongst our family and closest friends that we feel most at ease to express ourselves. In our living rooms, we weave together our past, present, and future through family pictures, graduation certificates, and stories about ‘the good old days’. Our living rooms, our homes, they are spaces that bear our imprints, that we’ve brought to life with little pieces of ourselves.
Outside, in the city of Beirut, the situation is quite the contrary. Everyday and everywhere, we are bombarded with symbols, messages, and memorials that are not always our own. Both the advertising empire and the political machine leave us not a moment of rest or simple tranquility, but flood us with images and dogma that we don’t necessarily wish to see and would not have conjured up on our own. If the city is indeed public space then should it not be a space, a medium, of public expression? Should it not bear the memories, the dreams, the hopes of the Lebanese public?
And so, if Beirut cannot be like our living rooms, we thought we’d bring our living room to Beirut. Convinced that art in public space should be art done by the public and that everyone has something to say and the right to say it, we* created a small mobile living room that we moved around the Corniche as a place that would instigate public expression.
We came ‘armed’ with a carpet, a few pillows, a coffee table, a plant, an argileh, and a whole lot of pastel crayons to turn the grey Corniche into a public art masterpiece. Our intent was two-fold: on the one hand to encourage people, young and old, to begin to see the city and specifically the sidewalk as a canvas – a medium that they could appropriate and express themselves on. At the same time, we hoped that the ‘cozy’ feel of our intervention would encourage people to sit down and hopefully instigate conversations with people about their concerns and dreams regarding the situation of public space in Beirut.
So, on a sunny Sunday morning, we went down to the Corniche and put down our living room in the middle of the sidewalk. There were a few strange, inquiring looks thrown our way at first, but once we got a few children involved, the intervention was an unstoppable success. Families that walked past slowed down and soon the children were on their knees – or simply lying flat out on the ground – drawing their favorite characters, Superman-versions of themselves, or their dream house. Many were at first hesitant to sit down on the ground (“fi wasakh, ya mama”), but pretty white dresses, hands, feet, and faces were soon the same colour as the sidewalk. It was only a matter of time before the first-hesitant adults joined in as well. Before long, the entire area around the carpet had been coloured by these families out on their Sunday-morning stroll.
The Corniche is often highlighted as one of the only functioning public spaces in Beirut. In a country that is still deeply divided and in which ‘the public’ is often equated with ‘the stranger’ and thus ‘the dangerous’ and ‘the unknown’, it seems that the only space in which different people can gather is one in which they can, quite literally, walk past each other; without any significant interaction. However, the space that we created – with the carpet as its focal point – seemed to draw people in and caused them to linger and dwell.
Although a simple and humble first attempt, interventions like this one hold much potential in fostering a more engaged, more inspired public realm in Beirut. Unpoliticised, untelevised, unglamourised. Just a bunch of people taking it upon themselves to start a few conversations out of genuine concern for the public wellbeing; armed with crayons that will redeem the colours from the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of the politicians. This movement could be a simple yet powerful first step towards a more integrated, inter-connected public realm in which we realise that ‘the Other’ is really just another ‘self’ that eats, walks, dreams, struggles, and hopes for the best just like the rest of us.
* “we” are Richard Pelgrim, Karim Badra, Joy Younan, Selina Baumann, and Claudia Koch
The intervention was part of a workshop organised by the Beirut Green Project entitled “Public Green Spaces in Beirut: the Role of Engaged Visual Artists” that took place on 28-29 January, 2012. The workshop brought together 10 visual arts students from Hamburg, Germany with 10 students from Beirut.