Terms of Refusal 2020 Resident Bassem Saad in conversation with open call jury member Mimi Onuoha
Learn more about the open call: Terms of Refusal
Bassem Saad is an artist/writer from Beirut trained in architecture. His practice deals with future visualization and simulation, and objects or operations that distribute violence, pleasure, care, and waste. He attempts to locate space and time for toying with and maneuvering within complex governance systems, through video, text, spatial installation, and virtual environments. His work was shown in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale and he has been a web resident at Akademie Schloss Solitude and a resident fellow at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program in Beirut. Bassem spoke to Mimi Onuoha, an Eyebeam alum, Visiting Arts Professor at NYU Tisch, and Nigerian-American artist and researcher whose work highlights the social relationships and power dynamics behind data collection.
Q: How did your background as someone who studied architecture lead you to your current artistic practice?
BS: At some point I decided that I didn’t want to have a career in designing or in proposing solutions. I didn’t feel like I was suited to that task. I always enjoyed the research phases of a project, and I felt that I could materialize that better through art and artistic practice. My artistic projects come from particular political commitments. What I try to do, whether it’s through installation or video or anything else, is transmit whatever research I’m involved in, whatever I feel is important that I’m trying to investigate. Coming from a training in architecture, I’m always focused on a particular site or a particular geographic case study that is fixed in space and time. But I’m also always trying to draw out conclusions or build knowledge that isn’t necessarily fixed to that particular space and time. There’s always at least a partial investment in a site I have access to. I try to draw out conclusions that can extend beyond that. In Beirut, there are a lot of architects that become artists after their education. A lot of would-be artists decide to study architecture because of societal expectations for their profession, and then at some point they decide that their critical practice works better in art. So there’s always this give and take between art and architecture that’s very present. That always allows for us artists in Beirut to be influenced by the cities we occupy, by the spaces we exist in. It allows us to question whatever built reality is around us.
Q: How does the prompt for this year’s Eyebeam residency, “What are the terms of refusal” relate to your work or practice?
BS: Beirut and Lebanon witnessed a waste crisis in 2015 when a landfill that took a big percentage of the national waste closed down. There was no solution. It was a problem that had been coming for a long time, and there were no solutions being planned for it. Waste overtook the city for months during the summer in sweltering 35 degree Celsius [95 F] heat. It was definitely a very strange time to be in Beirut. That gave birth to what came to be called the “waste revolts.” A lot of people now are situating the current revolution as a continuation of those waste revolts that took place in 2015. It was basically a rejection of the dominant sectarian political forces that would allow such an infrastructural crisis to take place. It extended beyond the waste, but waste became an entry point to refusing the dominant sectarian regime at the time. I think this is how I played on the term when I saw the open call at Eyebeam. “Terms of refusal” for me means both refuse as in waste, but then also refusing as in protesting whatever system you see as governing you unjustly. Now, with the current revolution, I think the second meaning comes to the fore, which is protest and revolutionary time, existing in a state of insurgence and mass mobilization and collectivity. The fact that waste is what led to that is so central for me.
Q: What medium allows you to transmit the ideas you come across in your research most effectively?
BS: I don’t think I’m committed to any one medium at this point. I could grow into that at some point, but at the moment I follow through with whatever research I’m doing and the medium I decide to invest in is determined by that. In the last residency I took part in, I thought I was going to be creating some sort of lecture-performance or installation, and then it ended up being a film alongside some sculptural work. Oftentimes, the research is really complex, with a lot of information that the viewer might not be interested in accessing or that can’t be transmitted in a particular format. So, I have to either decide to transmit more, and then I lean towards particular formats like electro-performance, or I decide that, actually, I don’t want to overburden the viewer with all of this information, and then it could end up being a film that focuses on triggering a sentiment instead of teaching the viewer something, being pedagogic. I think I decide on which medium I’m using and where I’m putting my energy based on what register I’m connecting with the person accessing this work.
Q: Who is the intended audience for your work and how do you reach them?
BS: The question of audience is very tricky for me. It’s funny because in the recent revolution, basically all of the writing on my Facebook feed was Arabic and my friends and I started basically only writing in Arabic even though most of us usually write in English. There’s definitely something to be taken from this in that we can have these transnational conversations, but of course, there’s also always a local investment you can draw conclusions from. Getting someone to care about an issue or a particular site or a concern that doesn’t target them directly is very important for building solidarity between different cities’ populations. They have some distinct struggles but are definitely united in other struggles. I think it is important to target a transnational audience by starting from a place of local engagement. Being able to access knowledge in different languages can help empower a work and share it. If I’m able to spread knowledge that I’ve been able to access only in Arabic to an audience that doesn’t speak Arabic, I feel like I’m doing something very worthwhile. Of course, that requires a lot of labor and it’s not always easy to achieve. There’s always this added level after you’ve done all of this work. You have to think of how you’re going to distill it and who you’re going to prioritize and how you’re going to transmit to the widest possible audience in the most meaningful way. There’s more labor, but hopefully there’s something more that’s being offered too.