‘I don’t negotiate on architecture,’ Paola Yacoub tells me. ‘I don’t show ruins, I don’t show bullet holes.’ Yacoub is standing in Beirut’s Charles Helou terminus that links Lebanon to Syria by bus. Like many of the city’s most organic and impromptu attractions, the station crouches beneath one of its many concrete motorway flyovers, and is unsettled by the signs of political unrest.
The pivot of traffic between two unstable nations, Charles Helou is a site of arrival for Syrian refugees into Lebanon – who so far total almost 700 000, in a country of less than 4.5 million people – but also of those refugees attempting to return home. It seems above all a place of waiting. Transport across the border is dangerous and unreliable, and sometimes non-existent, and the bus terminus has become an improvised and interim home for transients.
As we walk through the parking lot, a taxi driver turns from pissing under his car and offers us a lift, buttoning up his fly. Another driver sleeps in the luggage space in the bottom of his coach. In one corner, backed in the east by the profile of a concrete stairway’s skeleton and, behind this, the polluted shrubbery at the side of the motorway, is a prayer space. Carpets have been spread over the tarmac with two or three pairs of shoes placed at their edge, and a small pile of religious texts sits on a low table. It’s the month of Ramadan. On the other side of the station, near the buses, are two silent women with enormous piles of possessions heaped in sacks. It’s impossible to know if they’re coming or going. Paola starts to video the scene and is spoken to in Arabic by a policeman who watches from a first floor window. It’s a tense location in terms of security and control – we shouldn’t ask questions and we leave.
The site is the subject of Charles Helou, a short film Yacoub has made with visual anthropologist Pascale Ferral, which consists of a bare, one-take shot of men walking listlessly through the terminus. It contains minimal action and no commentary, and the lack of a central focus mirrors the abjection of the site: there is no tragedy here, no catharsis or resolution. Yacoub voices her annoyance at those who come to Lebanon looking for more recognisable traces of conflict. ‘Pain circulates just as strongly in a car park as in a site of destruction,’ she argues. ‘Traces are visible but it’s not because you see it that it’s there, that it’s painful.’
In a country in which a large proportion of the population live below the poverty line, and yet which also houses the world’s first banks to have given out loans for plastic surgery, visibility is a complex question. Lebanon’s huge financial inequality means it’s a third world country as well as a top party destination; neighbourhoods in Beirut change quickly from penthouses to tin roofs. Lawless highways split the capital, lined by huge billboards (“No more silicon! Just pure fat!”) and expensive, air-conditioned shopping malls, and, like Charles Helou, it is beneath them that women’s detention centres lurk and opportunist market stalls spring up; between their polluted lanes that young girls and the disabled beg drivers for cash and food.
Is Yacoub’s work about making the unseen side of the city visible? For her, the question is nuanced by technique. She defines the film not as a documentary but a document; a work that attempts to make visible not in a way that narrativises or fetishizes, but provides a flash of vision into the source. The document should not explain but affect – to activate the source without stagnating it as an art product.
It’s a theory developed from Georges Bataille’s work The Trial of Gilles de Rais, which forms the centrepoint of her recent four-day workshop at the Beirut Art Centre. The book outlines a methodology of documentation which fascinated Yacoub, a technique of dramatising archives that is comparable to Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. The document should dazzle, argues Bataille, escaping us to reveal the ‘dizzying mobility’ of the events themselves.
The method shares common ground with contemporary international interest in the archive as subjective and open-ended, explored in work exhibited by the likes of MoMA and the Tate Modern’s Tanks, and by US scholars such as Rebecca Schneider and Diana Taylor. But its resonance for Lebanese artists is unique, and for Yacoub, different again.
The lack of a unified national or civic identity in Lebanon, which is divided at every level by sectarian politics, confounds history-writing, particularly in the wake of the 1975-1990 Civil War. ‘Missing’ is a word often heard when talking about this period: the loss of homes, people, information, documents – without explanation. One fifth of the pre-war population was displaced. The vacuum has created a fascination amongst Lebanese artists with archiving: a recent Peeping Tom journal edition on Beirut printed the anonymous quotation, ‘Archivisme is a local disease.’
Often, though, this takes the form of a distrust of documents themselves, a calling into question of the ontological validity of history-writing. With political groups like Hezbollah substituting national museums with ideological theme parks that glorify conflict, the presentation (and fictionalisation) of national history rightly deserves interrogation.
Paradoxically, Yacoub aligns this stance with a government-endorsed and readily-exportable status quo: to settle for an abstract critique of history-writing itself is to negate the real need for information about the war. The 1990 amnesty law, which concluded the war by absolving all political crimes committed, instilled an amnesia in Lebanon – ‘a violent act of forgetting’ – which, infuriated, she claims is only embedded by such work. Her opinion is perhaps fitting for an artist who was employed for six years painstakingly drawing archaeological remains in downtown Beirut, at the site of the wipe-out and reconstruct project headed up in the aftermath of the war’s destruction by controversial company Solidere. Whatever might serve as a distraction, the need for substantial archives remains: ‘Personal data will collapse without collective memory.’
Nonetheless, as Yacoub’s ouevre as a whole asserts, Lebanon, and its position within the changing Middle East, is a story of switched alliances and reversed balances of power; the archive must testify to contradiction as well as fact. Yacoub’s photographs of downtown Beirut in the late nineties are ambiguous: the dereliction looks like wartime decay but is often the work-in-progress of Solidere’s overhaul. And whilst, in 2003, Syrians with Flowers was an ironic glance at the postwar Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the current influx of refugees from Homs and Damascus reinvigorates Yacoub’s own archives with the same uncertainty that fermented under the flyover at Charles Helou.