Urban poetry

Urban poetry


Christophe Katrib is a multimedia artist who lives and works in Lebanon. He graduated in Film Studies from the IESAV in Beirut in 2000, and expresses himself through a range of medium including photography, video, music, poetry and installation art. After the war of July 2006, he took part in the collective exhibition Nafas Beirut at the Espace SD venue. From there on, he decided to devote himself to photography.

Christophe describes his artistic approach as “poetic” and “meditative,” while retaining the documentary aspects of his surroundings. He has developed several themes such as the interaction between Man and his environment, between Nature and the city, and between motion and immobility. He is also interested in the issue of the disappearance of public space in Lebanon. You can get a glimpse of his work through two of his projects: his contribution to the Workshop “rePlace Beirut”, a cartographic and subjective exploration of the Lebanese capital, which questions the interaction between the inhabitants and urban space, and his installation ‘Waste not your tears (fellow Lebanese) for they are the solution!’.

Could you briefly describe your contribution to the workshop rePlace Beirut?

My contribution deals with the issue of public space in Beirut. The idea behind this workshop was to work with the roads and routes which the people living in Beirut could download from the project’s website. I worked on a series of overlapping routes in the Hamra region. My intention was to provide these routes with resting points, or rather areas where one could take a break, in the shape of micro public spaces. I first observed the relevant region, then established three different types of spaces: spaces which were already used as public spaces, spaces which could be used as public spaces, and finally spaces which could be turned into public spaces by adding an element. Based on this, I came up with a photographic work, a short video and finally a complete index on Google Earth where each location complete with description, picture and space category could be found.

Why was it important for you to participate?

Exploring Beirut and its possibilities of subjective cartography was a particularly interesting theme for me. Furthermore, it was also an excuse for me to do some research on a topic which intrigued me, and also to start a new project. Maintaining a permanent and stable artistic activity in Beirut can be difficult. Even though the situation is gradually improving, there is a shortage of structures and necessary support which make projects such as rePlace Beirut — or any other collective project or workshop — vital.

You have developed many projects with a strong association to the city — your sound trips particularly come to mind. How is Beirut an important ground for experience, inspiration and reflection?

For better or worse, Beirut is overloaded with history, texture and contradictions. It is a city where classes mingle, collide and superimpose on each other. It is also a city in constant flux, which charms and captivates as much as it injures and overwhelms. Beirut experiences several deficiencies in terms of urban planning, public spaces, respect for heritage, community spirit etc. It is therefore a place which prompts questioning, research, and creative and progressive ideas. In a word, it is a fascinating city, but one which cries for help as it is, in my opinion, increasingly in free fall.

How was your experience in Hamra? Why did you wish to work on this particular area?

Hamra is a lively, energetic and diverse neighbourhood. It gives an impression of public life with businesses, restaurants, bars, cultural centres and homes mixed within an area small enough to be covered on foot. Hence, the large number of pedestrians in comparison with other areas of Beirut. This gives Hamra an undeniable heartbeat. That said, it is not exempt from Beirut’s wider problems. After all, with the exception of its pavements and lanes, it is an area which desperately lacks green spaces. Through my own experience of Hamra, I noticed a great opportunity to detect, map, or even create/take over these types of spaces. This explains my choosing of this area.

Therefore, your work is to reclaim public space. Can you tell us more about this approach?

This approach is first of all personal and vital for me. I live in this city, I interact with it, and it questions me and even sometimes rejects me. I feel it cannot satisfy my needs, particularly in terms of public and common spaces, which, when I travel, I find fulfilled in other cities, even though Beirut offers experiences which are to be found nowhere else. These needs are essential to a healthy society with efficiently run city planning.

As a result, instead of emigrating, I seek alternative ways to satisfy them within my artistic work, with “rePlace Beirut” for example, but also in my daily life in the city. Both are linked. The aim is to find cracks in the city fabric, from which a sense of public space, no matter how temporary, can emerge. If the city hall and the authorities are not aware of such a shortage or the risk this poses for society’s mental health and well-being, all there is left to do is for individuals to reclaim a minimum of public, green and common space. The goal is to think, to twist reality and inject poetry into it, and to imagine both personal and collective solutions.

Could you present some of the stages of your travel through the Hamra area?

It would be easier to take you out for a walk, but, simply put, the goal is to identify and pick out places which can be harnessed as public spaces and to use them. Here are a few examples: the steps right before the Medical Gate of the American University of Beirut are used by students and local young people, you can sit away from the noise of the city by the fountains and marble plant trays found on the inside plaza of the Centre Hamra Square, and concrete blocks – which are normally used to block roads or parking spaces – are also found and make an almost perfect seat. This is not a preset walk, but a list of scattered places in the city, which anyone can use. Some new ones can even be created.

How was the installation art project ‘Waste not your tears (fellow Lebanese) for they are the solution!’ created and in what context did you develop it? What inspired you?

In the spring of 2008, an American artist came to Beirut and asked the local artists to work from waste and recycled objects with the aim of setting up a collective exhibition (Live Debris) which would include artists from different countries. I was curious to try something new and the challenge was an interesting one. I got in touch with a friend, Yasmina Raffoul, and we decided to work together. At the time the situation in Lebanon was tense and had been torn apart for a while. We wanted to discuss this by using a two-tier recycling model: one was conceptual – recycling Lebanese Tears – and the other practical by using waste and found objects.

Tension was at its peak when the events of May 2008 unfolded and Beirut temporarily became again a small battlefield between the Hezbollah forces and their opponents associated with Hariri’s Future Movement. This led to a more crucial desire to create something which deals with this ubiquitous tendency for disaster and conflict in Lebanon, and perhaps make an attempt at finding a solution, at least a conceptual one. Inspiration is therefore conceptual. It comes from our experience of Lebanon, particularly between 2005 and May 2008, and from the memories of the civil war and its repercussion on recent events, including the social and cultural problems typically found in this country.

Could you describe the different elements which make up your installation? What are its different functions?

The installation represents a conceptual machine which turns Lebanese tears into a vaccine of national unity. As a result, different containers and bottles hand around a central barrel to which they are attached with tubes of different colours. The barrel is painted in blood red and looks like the Lebanese flag or like the road blocks barrels used by the Lebanese army. A green nozzle protrudes where the cedar is supposed to be and the vaccine solution made from tears pours into a beautiful glass bottle.

Could you describe some of these tears?

A label showed on each container the type of tears it held. The type and name of the tears were more or less tragic, historical, tragicomic, satirical or dramatic. A classic example is the tears of the civil war. The tears of July 2006, referring to the Israeli aggression during that war, are more recent. And, in addition to those, there are the less traditional – but nonetheless problematic – tears. The tears caused by burned tyres for instance, arising when different factions in the country express their anger with each other by burning tyres and blocking roads. Finally, the tears of Mother Nature. The respect and preservation of the environment is an issue in Lebanon and is often overlooked due to the numerous political and regional problems.

Tell me more about The National Unity Vaccine Solution?

The title is self-explanatory. It is a solution to turn this tiny country torn apart from all sides into a cohesive entity which is moving on for the good of all of its citizens, no matter how different. In other words it is a vaccine of national unity for lack of a government of national unity. This elixir is made up of the tears which resulted from the different disasters, conflicts, disagreements, catastrophes, problems, obstacles, sorrow, tension and tragedies. There is an element of salvation and prophecy. The fact that the elixir flows into an old olive oil bottle is not innocent. Somehow, there is the idea that suffering absolves and saves; the ancestral religious/human concept according to which sacrifice leads to salvation. It is also a satire which ridicules the inability of leaders and politicians to put aside their disagreements and to find a compromise for the good of the country and of its citizens who have paid and are still paying the price.

Interview by Barbara Coffy, first published in July 2011 on Libalel’s blog. To know more: Soundwalk by Christophe Kartrib, published in the magazine Dérives.tv. Videos and music: YouTube, MySpace, SoundCloud. Visual arts: WOOLOO.

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