Excerpt from the film-performance memories of our underdevelopment (2015) by AYREEN ANASTAS and RENE GABRI, which was screened at the end of Day 3 of March Meeting 2015. All photos by Kevin Jones for ArtAsiaPacific.

A photo of the Women Action Front’s first National Convention presented by LALA RUKH.

May 14 2015

March Meeting 2015: (Day 3) The Sharjah Sessions—Discussions Curated by Eric Baudelaire

by Kevin Jones

Day 3 of March Meeting 2015: I was feeling nostalgic for the first March Meeting I had attended back in 2010. At the time the format had already evolved from the Meeting’s inaugural year (2008), when a single table sufficed for regional artists and institutions (like sound artist Tarek Atoui, as well as representatives from Amman’s Darat al-Funun and al-Ma’mal Foundation in Jerusalem) to huddle together under the banner of connectivity, and participants shared projects, hurdles and plans, and then jointly explored potential future collaborations. In 2010, March Meeting, in addition to institutional networking, proposed a series of public discussions on new projects. Artists and curators presented in what I remember to be short, crisp interventions, nascent or largely unseen works, or exhibition projects in what amounted to a rapid-fire discovery-fest. In one session, for example, Bidoun Projects (the curatorial arm of the magazine, represented by then-editor Antonia Carver) discussed setting up an association of independent art book publishers that could feed into Bidoun’s roving Library Project—an initiative that continues to pops up around the world (even after the magazine ceased its print version). March Meeting 2015 participant Khaled Hourani was already on hand in 2010 to discuss his unfolding Picasso in Palestine project, as was then-Townhouse gallery curator Sarah Rifky (also a 2015 invitee), who presented her Cairo-based international exhibition, titled “Diary of a Bad Year,” months before it became a reality.

A glimmer of this former spirit sparked on Day 3 when Rifky included in her performative presentation, A Matter of Practice, excerpts from the unreleased film Out on the Street by Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk. Prompted by what feels like a frustration with the twin limitations of documentary and activism, the film showcases a group of Egyptian workers in an acting workshop. Shifting in and out of various roles as policemen, factory foremen and workers, the “characters” of the film inhabit the very space between fact and fiction that Rifky highlighted in her presentation, echoing impulses in Eric Baudelaire’s film Letters to Max (2014), screened on Day 2, in which the former Abkhazian Foreign Minister threads through art. Turning to theatrical practices to reframe daily realities, Out on the Street tugs at root injustices beneath the workers’ inherited demands for better pay and conditions. While Out on the Street functions as a “microcosm for understanding Egypt,” as described by Rifky, the film also rather disturbingly foregrounds a universal human condition.   

Xavier Wrona (left) and Sarah Rifky (right) during Rifky’s presentation, “A Matter of Practice.”

Riffing off Georges Bataille’s premise that architecture is the henchman of “statification,” architect Xavier Wrona, in his presentation “The Architecture of the State,” cascaded examples of architecture as an age-old ordering device—including a 19th-century multi-purpose building whose anthropological function was to create a working class, as well as surprising applications of architectural thinking to warfare strategy (notably, Palladio’s “designed” reenactments of battles). Like Metwaly and Rizk, Wrona bemoaned a certain bankruptcy of activism, particularly among the architectural profession. Concluding his presentation with a lamentation of the architects’ lack of usefulness beyond “serving” capital, or their out-of-sync “emergency shelter” reality (“Architects always show up after the catastrophe,” he mused), Wrona imagined a means of turning architectural thinking against capital. If Rifky opened a parentheses of reflection on art’s ability to incite change, Wrona’s work hurled us back into the previous day’s interrogations of how to pragmatically transcend the “state” if we find it a problematic entity—(as many in the congregation do. 

Writer Mariah Lookman (left) in conversation with LALA RUKH (right).

Lala Rukh’s minimalist work in Sharjah Biennial 12 contributes deeply to what its curator, Eungie Joo, calls the “meditative pause to reassert the need for wonder…” Yet Rukh’s life under martial law in 1980s Pakistan was syncopated by the demonstrations she attended (and sometimes masterminded) as part of the Women’s Action Forum. Against the backdrop of various attempts by General Zia’s regime to curtail freedom, particularly for women, we see Rukh’s activism take shape, undaunted in spite of early teething pains in the nascent women’s movement (“We were so naïve,” she laughed.) As Joo remarked in a Q&A session with the artist, Rukh not only reacted against the state, she actually contributed to building an alternative nation within the existing state, almost ignoring the latter’s existence. Although the conversation with writer Mariah Lookman (as part of the Q&A session) felt hermetic at times, and Rukh’s artistic practice was only parenthetically evoked, it was hard not to be moved by Rukh’s refreshing clarity, candor and humor.

The unenviable task of “resolving” the problem of the state fell to the ten-person panel that reunited all the speakers and moderators in Baudelaire’s Sharjah Sessions programming. Conversational skirmishes from the previous day flared up again (a desire for details and clarity on Abkhazia’s recent history among them), and one panel member questioned the suitability of a forum ostensibly on contemporary art as a place to meaningfully address issues surrounding the state and geopolitics. But, as Joo reminded the assembly, inter-disciplinarity is the mantra of The past, the present, the possible. So on with the show.

March Meeting 2015 is currently taking place at the Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts, until May 16, 2015.