Close Encounters

The first visual arts festival in Syria

Movimento by Salah Saouli
Movimento by Salah Saouli

Last October in Damascus, multilingual blogger, art curator and world traveller Charlotte Bank directed the exhibition Close Encounters, which was part of the first visual arts festival ever to be seen in the country. Art videos and installations of nine Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian artists were screened. Their works all investigated on the notion of ‘city’ and its founding concepts — class, profession, ethnicity, education, politics and economy. Mashallah met with Charlotte Bank for a debriefing of the festival.

How was the idea of organising a visual arts festival in Damascus born?

The aim of the festival is to create a platform for inter-regional and international exchange between artists and art professionals. There is a dramatic lack of adequate spaces in Damascus for showing non-commercial, contemporary art. At the same time there is a lot of new art being produced that shows great potential and deserves to reach the public. The idea is to establish a space for a broad presentation of a wide range of artistic media and relevant discussions and debates. To ensure this, curators and art professionals are invited to participate in the festival with projects that are related to a selected theme. This year, the projects were all related to the themes of “city” and “memory”.

There is a dramatic lack of adequate spaces in Damascus for showing non-commercial, contemporary art.

The project Close Encounters, which I curated for the first edition of the festival, was born out of the keen interest I take in contemporary urban culture. This holds a central place in my curatorial work. I am specifically interested in the ways our urban environment influences our perception, our memories and how it affects our daily lives.

Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities was a source of inspiration for the theme? Which one of those invisible cities would match Damascus?

Invisible Cities is interesting because it explores different possible and impossible cities and their relation to the human psyche. Thus its relevance to my project is more due to these concepts rather than any specific of these imaginary cities.

We now live in a time where, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. At the same time, globalisation has the effect that cities come to resemble each other more and more.

We now live in a time where, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. At the same time, globalisation has the effect that cities come to resemble each other more and more: people in cities all over the world are faced with the same issues of housing shortage, gentrification, pollution and a general feeling of alienation. So while each city still has its own distinct history and character, many problems of city dwellers are the same, irrespective of the place they live.

How did you discover the movies that were selected for the exhibition?

The videos and installations featured in the exhibition Close Encounters were selected on the basis of their relevance to the concept of the exhibition. They are existing works that I know from different screening events and exhibitions, or through my contacts to the artists. One piece, Salah Saouli’s installation Movimento was created especially for this occasion.

By choosing not to be in a gallery, we wanted to highlight the open character of the festival and show that art belongs not only in exclusive and sealed off places, but is an invitation to people to interact and reflect.

What kind of audience does a visual arts festival gather in Damascus?

Our aim was to attract as wide a range of different people as possible. For this reason, the festival location was set in the middle of the city, in a dynamic area [Zeitouneh Square near Bab Sharqi] with people from different levels of society and with new cafes and restaurants, where people in Damascus go in the evenings. By choosing not to be in a gallery, we wanted to highlight the open character of the festival and show that art belongs not only in exclusive and sealed off places, but is an invitation to people to interact and reflect. Such concepts are quite new in Damascus.

You work between Berlin and Damascus. Are there any similarities between the two cities?

Both cities are capital cities and face some of the same problems, such as gentrification and a dying out of traditional living districts that get turned into offices, chic restaurants and cafes and expensive luxury housing. This is a global phenomenon related to international capitalism and can be observed all over the world.

Have you noticed an opening in the Syrian society these last few years? If so, what are the consequences?

There is a certain opening in the Syrian society on some levels. This is seen in the number of young artists who are experimenting with new techniques and seeking to connect with the international art scene. At the same time, travel restrictions prevent most of these artists from travelling freely to see art in other countries and interact with other artists. For this reason, festivals such as ours are very important.

Damascus has until now only played a minor cultural role in the region. The past few years have seen a number of interesting initiatives which show the city’s potential to play a larger role in the future.

How would you define Damascus’s role in the cultural dynamics of the region?

Damascus has until now only played a minor cultural role in the region. The past few years have seen a number of interesting initiatives which show the city’s potential to play a larger role in the future. However, working in the arts field in Syria, especially in the non-commercial field, remains difficult. There is a substantial lack of institutions offering support to artistic projects. Still, the only way for artists to live from their art is to produce work which they can sell. And for many Syrians — artists and the public alike — the word “art” still refers to paintings, preferably beautiful pieces in nice colours that can be bought and enjoyed at home. Conceptual art with a potential to open up discussions — art that is not produced for selling — is not very broadly understood, even among people in the art field. The future will show how fast such concepts change in Damascus.

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