In this chapter of Life Worth Living, we publish a transcript of This Haunting Memory: Panos Aprahamian and Juli Carson in Conversation. The conversation took place over the Summer of 2021 while the exhibition Revolution Everywhere: Thresholds of Resistance was being prepared as the public reopening of the University Art Galleries at UCI, after the campus-wide lockdown had been lifted. It was a moment of hope, apprehension and critical reflection. Aprahamian’s contribution to Revolution Everywhere was the installation of three films—This Haunting Memory That Is Not My Own (2021), Odorless Blue Flowers Awake Prematurely (2021), and Billy Pilgrim Has Come Unstuck In Time (2020)—all produced over the course of Lebanon’s October 17 Revolution, the Covid Lockdown, the United State’s Capital Insurrection, and the Beirut Port Explosion. It is the guiding principle of both Carson’s exhibition and Aprahamian’s films that art made at the aesthetic threshold of political resistance—wherein the poetics of space is allowed to play out on the margins of revolution—makes life worth living.
Juli Carson: Let’s begin with what my colleague Mary Kelly calls a political primal scene, by which she means the first time a child comes to have an awareness of the politics going on around them. Her term echoes that which Freud called a primal scene, with one significant difference: Freud’s infantile primal scene is unconscious by definition, while Kelly’s political primal scene denotes one’s conscious entry into the conventional, symbolic world of nation states. Accordingly, it’s your first memory of understanding that there is an external political world out there, beyond your domestic scene. That said, one’s political primal scene is also encoded with a constellation of ideological misrecognitions, because it happens to us at such a young age. I’ll begin with mine. It was circa 1969, when I was around 6 years old. I remember seeing Louis Armstrong on our black and while TV—as part of some news coverage—and asking my mother if he had been assassinated. Apparently, I had metonymically connected Armstrong to some traumatic events of the moment: The assassination President John Kennedy in 1963, the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, followed by Robert Kennedy that same year. I also remember thinking that it was commonplace for famous people to be killed on television. So that exemplifies a political primal scene, which is then followed by an adult political consciousness sparked by a given historical event. In my case, the year was 1989 when a constellation of (now) formative events occured: The AIDS crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, The US Savings and Loan Crisis, Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment exhibition, the shooting of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, NYC, and so on and so forth. All that constitutes my political primal scene(s), do you want to share yours?
Panos Aprahamian: My political primal scene would be when I first learned about the Armenian Genocide. I was taught about it at a very young age. My political primal scene was this primal injustice that would define my lifelong politics: This original sin that birthed the community I was part of and structured our lives. I can’t recall precisely when this happened, but it was early on in elementary school.
JC: Where were you living?
PA: I was living in Bourj Hammoud on Beirut’s periphery. I used to attend an Armenian school that was run by the cultural wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. Most private schools in Lebanon are run by religious groups, and religious studies are a part of the curriculum. My school was secular-nationalist, and we received classes on the Armenian nation, its history, geography, and language. The genocide was always already there in my political consiousness. And as for events that occurred during my lifetime, I would like to mention a few. The first would be the Qana massacre. On April 18, 1996 the Israeli Air Force bombed a UN shelter full of civilians, the majority of whom were women and children. I think Qana is where Jesus turned water into wine. The second would be the Syrian Military Intelligence. Their presence exerted anxiety on the adults around me. Therefore, in me too naturally.
JC: So when was that?
PA: That was in the 1990s during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. The third, the coming of age one, would be 2005. The end of the Syrian occupation and the revolt that came to be known as the Cedar Revolution. This was in part the result of Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Hariri was a business mogul and the country’s prime minister at the time. I remember I was watching Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. My mom comes into the living room and asks me to change the channel so she can check the news. Something big had happened. But at the time I protested against switching the channel since something always happens in Lebanon. In my mind this wasn’t going to be anything special. But it was. Everything changed almost overnight.
JC: Yes, it was the so-called “Cedar Revolution,” a brainchild of Chibli Mallat—the neoliberal lawyer, law professor, and former candidate for president in Lebanon—who actually penned the revolution’s manifesto that placed Lebanon’s destiny within the larger arc of revolutionary European history. Here’s a citation from one of his essays, which sounds really crazy today, given everything that’s happened since it was written in 2007:
Fast forward to 2221. What will a historian standing in the 23rd century say about the Cedar Revolution of 2005? When 2221 comes, the bicentenary of the Cedar Revolution will have passed, with many historians’ corresponding flurry of writings, maybe even in the order of the 170 conferences worldwide which were held around the bicentenary of the French Revolution in and around 1989. 2221 is a simple arithmetical equation: 2221 to 2005 is what 2005 is to 1789. The distance represents the historical perspective acquired, and underlines the accumulated knowledge that marks the bicentenary of the Lebanese Revolution and a few years more, 216 solar years exactly. Add 216 to 1789, you get 2005. Add the same to 2005, when the Cedar Revolution happened, you get 2221. Now 2221, or 2205, or even 2021 is a long human memory.
Chibli was buddies with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s, best known for bringing (and winning) the case of Victims of Sabra and Shatila vs Ariel Sharon in Belgium in 2003. By 2006, when he would have written the above passage, he was a Visiting Professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
PA: That quote is really something. Especially the whole numerology thing. I wonder what meaning these numbers hold in his mind. I like the synchronicities though and the idea that the Cedar Revolution, like the French one, was a bourgeois revolution. So back to 2005, which is 216 plus 1789, the Syrian forces leave Lebanon. This was something to celebrate. I don’t know if Hezbollah really wanted the Syrians to stay but their response to it was one of gratitude towards the support the Syrian regime had given to the resistance, in the form of a mass rally that simultaneously rejected the Cedar Revolution.
JC: The pulse points of your political point of view…
PA: Something really big happened, however, when I was a bit older. I was in my mid-twenties by then and, ironically, working at Future Television—the tv channel founded by Rafic Hariri and funded by the Hariri estate. That something big was the Arab Spring. There were small-scale mobilizations here and there but then Tahrir happened and that was an even bigger game changer than 2005. The biggest thing about it though, was the hope it brought with it…
JC: It really was. When I want to say that “2011 was your 1989,” I don’t mean it the way Americans and Europeans do when they express a kind of wish fulfillment—you know, that “democracy had come to the Middle East the way it had to Eastern Europe.” Rather, it seems that 2011 was as monumental for you as 1989 was to me, although, in retrospect, both years failed to produce what our aspirations had longed for. In the end they turned out to be monumentally un-monumental in a way…
PA: Okay, so how would Chibli do it? 2033 would be to 2011 what 2011 was to 1989. What would a historian in 2033 say about 2011? That it was monumentally un-monumental perhaps. And yeah, it didn’t turn out as expected at all. The populist right, the Islamist in this case, started filling the vaccuum that was created by this historical opening. The reaction by the ancien regimes to the spring was brutal. And then the Syrian Revolution happened, and that was really big for us. It was almost like the impossible was made possible. A few months later, things had spiralled downwards in such a violent manner that the hope brought by the spring had already gone. Fast forward a couple of years, and Hezbollah announces their involvement in the Syrian Civil War. No matter their political views, people in the Arab world had respect and sympathy for Hezbollah. They had successfully stood up to one of the best equipped and best funded armies in the entire world. This attitude was gone after Syria. Western leftists like to claim—it originally was Noam Chomsky’s stance I think—that it is their duty to pressure and protest their own governments and the forces at play at home because that can have an effect of sorts on global geopolitics. It is a more successful strategy than plain internationalism. I don’t know how true that is, and I don’t really agree, but does that mean my sole focus concerning the Syrian Revolution and Civil War is Hezbollah’s withdrawal? I don’t know, maybe. But either way there was no way to do that in Lebanon at the time.
JC: Which brings us back to, you know, all these monumentally un-monumental moments, which, in turn, evokes what you have recently called “The October Revolution” in Lebanon, 2019. And you know, Hezbollah is right there in the middle of it, again, just like before with everybody else. So now that the other revolutionary shoe has dropped—Cedar being the first and October being the second—it’s really interesting to think back about Hezbollah’s role in the Cedar moment, because that was Lebanon’s last big neoliberal populist hurrah, in terms of “revolutions.” But now with October, which is sort of a millennial movement…
PA: A “Millenarian Revolution”…
JC: Meaning like y’all are millennials.
PA: I meant millenarian like apocalyptic. Millennials are pretty millenarian I guess. Aren’t ISIS millennials? They’re pretty millenarian.
JC: Interesting…But I guess I was using millennial in a rather American way, denoting a particular generation, although obviously there are older and younger people also involved in this recent movement, the October Revolution. But what’s unique to the Millennial generation’s perspective, is that they are attuned to the language games, the nomenclature, the rhetorical tonality of revolution. Retrospectively, it’s interesting to think about the Cedar Revolution as the last populist uprising, after Hariri’s assassination, in the context of what I was working on while I was living and teaching in Beirut, from 2018-2019: The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1992). I was “working through” this event with our students at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a catastrophe that had managed to escape their own political primal scene. Or, more accurately, their political primal scene was remembering their parents talking (or refusing to talk) about the Civil War. So you had a kind of phantom primal scene. That’s where the student’s and I came up with the rhetorical figure of “caesura” to denote that historical conflict in our exhibition in AUB’s University Art Gallery: caesura_a moment in time, again, rubbed smooth. Subsequently, now you have this succession of events, alternately experienced, remembered, forgotten or repressed: The Sectarian Civil War, the neoliberal Cedar Revolution, followed most recently by the October Revolution. But it’s interesting, too, that the Cedar Revolution, with all its economic and cultural blindspots, was trying to do what the October Revolution is now aimed at: Deposing, once and for all, Lebanon’s Sectarian government. Hence the recent chant: When we say all of them, we mean all of them. So in a way, it seems that each Revolution—Cedar and October respectively—shared a populist ethos towards different cultural ends. In the context of this larger political timeline—a series of cultural sea changes that has made you at once hopeful or cynical at any given moment—can you talk more about the October Revolution, with which you’ve been personally engaged?
PA: This might be true to more or less any revolutionary moment in the world, but it felt inherently Lebanese for this progressive movement to split and reproduce the 14/8 divide of the ruling class. 14 being the Western-backed Neoliberal/Neocon coalition, which was the result of the so-called Cedar Revolution, and 8 being the pro-axis-of-resistance reaction to it as a form of another alliance headed by Hezbollah and with several populist groups. Another opportunity for some numerology. Anyway, the revolt split into a liberal wing and a populist one. The demands and concerns were sort of different. The priorities were very different. For the Liberals this was, unconsciously for most I guess, the chance to realize the ideals of the so-called Cedar Revolution. For them the problem with 2005 is that the movement’s ideals were not made but rather left behind. That wasn’t the actual reason it didn’t work though. The ideas themselves weren’t that good to be honest. At least not for many. Maybe for a few people at the top. The way they restructured the Lebanese economy after the Civil War ended took a new and more aggressive life form after 2005, and later 2008. It was practically a Ponzi Scheme on a national level. The architects of it were the architects of the Cedar Revolution too. It was never meant to work for us. On the other hand, the more populist wing wanted to realize the ideals of the anti-colonial struggles of the last century. The narrative that is currently monopolized by Hezbollah and its allies.
JC: Which is unsustainable
PA: Completely unsustainable, and add to that the complete misplacement of the struggle. The obsession with the Arabic language for example. You know how Lebanese youth are multilingual. But at the time everyone was obsessed with expressing themselves in Arabic and policing each other to do the same.
JC: What kind of Arabic?
PA: The local dialect. Let’s call it Lebanese, which doesn’t exist in written form, so everyone writes in a different way. Some are “more correct” than others. I see where it’s coming from, French and English are a sign of elitism and privilege. But it drains a lot of energy that could have been useful elsewhere, and not everyone is able to express themselves properly in Arabic because of French or English.
JC: There are other reasons?
PA: Other communities. A good portion of the workers in Lebanon don’t speak Arabic as their first language. Whether they’re migrant workers or from an ethnic minority like Armenian or Kurdish. The same people insisting on Arabic were the same people complaining about the lack of integration of these very workers into the movement. But that’s another story. More than just an issue of language.
JC: Let’s say it’s the paradox of nationalism, right? In which case, it’s such a 19th century moment. Arendt wrote extensively on this…that when establishing a “nation-state” you have to expel anyone that doesn’t fit the narrative, which denotes a great swath of the people. And then, in order to re-enter the state that they were expelled from, they have to agree on “being” the one thing that they are not. In fact, everyone has to be the one thing they are not, because national identity is really just imaginary. It’s a horrible model because you have a nation built upon nationalist resentment towards this imaginary “other,” this abjectified “not me.” This is how Viktor Orbán is currently building his fascist nation-state in Hungary. It’s all based on the “Make Hungary Great Again” narrative, which, as Steve Bannon himself has said, made Orbán “Trump before Trump.”
PA: Yes everyone agrees on “what they are not” to start the nation-building process. Gilbert Achcar—the Lebanese socialist academic and writer—talks about the counterrevolution during the Arab Spring as binary. Forming this triangle where, all over the Arab world and often beyond, the two reactionary forces pushed back against the revolution. The Islamist were on one side, the Military Juntas on the other. So on one side you have the populist right, embodied in the Arab world as Political Islam. These two sides are fighting each other, but they are also fighting the progressive forces. Same thing in the US, I would say. For the first time in a while, young Americans care about mainstream politics. They’re really engaged. Even in electoral politics. But this progressive voice is being halted by two sides. One is the urge to return to some sort of normalcy and the other one was Trumpism, the reactionary populism that channeled this anger, and claim these progressive talking points for themselves. However, they took it in a reactionary direction. They kept the form but twisted the meaning and created this narrative where someone like Trump is the figure that actually cares about American workers.
JC: People who believe Trump cares about American workers are deeply, deeply melancholic. Let me speak to this from my side now, though I won’t say I’m not naïve about it—only less naive—because when one’s talking about one’s own culture, more blindspots come into play. But, for me, it was during the summer of 2016—which elsewhere I have called The American Summer—that I became increasingly convinced that Trump would be elected because of all the sectarian tricks that Cambridge Analytica was doing with Facebook along with everything else going on. So, when asked, I selected November 9 as my speaking date at the MUMOK in Vienna, where I was curating a film series called Libidinal Economies, because I wanted to be out of the country when it happened, anticipating that perhaps it would be good to be confronted by a large foreign audience and have to “explain” things, or at least work through them in a public way. What I didn’t expect was that the audience I encountered—these young artists who were very politically engaged on an international scale—would be just openly sobbing, completely dismayed and in shock. And my job as a visiting lecturer was, like, what do I say? It occurred to me that identification—at once ideological and imaginary—was what we all needed to address, to sort of wake up and shake off this nightmare. Because there was a lot of work to be done, and reverting to zombie apocalypse narratives wasn’t going to do it. So there was lots of conversation around how what they were then, on November 9, 2016, was inversely what Trump supporters had felt the day Barak Obama was elected on November 5, 2008, which, for white supremacists, was an utter nightmare. So I needed to address the subjectivity of it all, posited as a means of understanding the political landscape we were about to enter. From there, conversations about the pharmacological role of art production ensued, particularly around the notion that “one man’s revolution is another man’s insurrection.” In the face of all this, we landed up on the Beckett adage: I can’t go on, I’ll go on…
JC: And so you, yourself go on making artwork in the face of all the tragedy that has happened in Beirut. It’s simply what you decided, that you have to be proactively engaged on the ground as an activist, evidenced by what you were writing about online: How to strategically use umbrellas, how to get gas out of our eyes, and so forth. But your art production is different, meaning that in the midst of this Revolution, you’re not a man with a camera making a documentary. Rather, your films take up the poetic essay format. But while the subject is abstracted, it’s no less political. Moreover, your films are intersectional in that they are informed as much by the West as they are by the East, by Hollywood as much as Avant-garde film and literature. Can you talk more about your decision to be an artist? To go on, as it were?
PA: My dad is into art, into artists like Van Gogh, Modigliani, Martyros Saryan, late 19th and early 20th century works. But the real reason I wanted to make art is actually Hollywood. The silver screen or whatever. The big cinema, like the French say (Le Grand Cinema). However, once I went to film school I realized that this is not what I want to do. This is not for me. This is not the process that I’m interested in. I had these more niche interests, more avant garde and experimental works. I am interested in moments where science-fictional elements reveal themselves in autobiographical or essayistic works. You can find this with the moving image in the historical avant garde and in experimental works with their critical and formal sophistication and where genre cinema manifests itself as this enjoyment-driven, weird formalist experimentations. My Sex Pistols moment was Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo (1989). It is the story of a man who, after getting into a car accident, starts mutating into a human-machine hybrid. An astute critique of alienation in the form of a hyper-violent cyberpunk journey in the urbanscape. The other moment would be David Cronenberg, also merging these two worlds. With a background in literature, he was mixing arthouse cinema with genre film. And his monsters were so quirky because it wasn’t possible to make polished ones à la Hollywood with Canadian public funding. That sort shaped the way I look at the visual arts. Both critical and cool, you know. So what is formally and aesthetically inspiring to me, what kind of images I would like to see? What kind of sounds would I like to hear? Add to that an unhealthy obsession with the inherent contradiction in everything and the connectivity of all things. Not in a hippie way though. It’s pretty materialist. My coming of age artwork would be the film you screened at your Beirut Lab exhibition, Yabandjo. It is about the paranoia of the inhabitants of a small town with a dark past and in a strange present. And this was a microcosm of what the whole world was going through at the time, in late 2015, early 2016. With the post-Arab Spring outbursts of violence, like the Syrian Civil War, the crashing of several economies. The world was broken.
JC: With all the forced mass emigrations, we’re in the 19th century again, unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim…
PA: I wanted to show the universality of these anxieties and social relations. After that, This Haunting Memory That Is Not My Own where I was chasing links between different forms of labor, exploitation and extraction that transcends not only identities or geographies but also species. That goes beyond the human and the non-human; the labor of the silkworm. And even beyond life; the labor of the machine. In the film the machines seem to be working on their own, without any humans around. I don’t even know what the procedure is there. But as you’re looking at the screen, there’s nobody there, yet everything is moving. So it’s not only about humans. And not in the sense that let’s not be too self-centered or whatever. I don’t care about that. What I am interested in is that we are not the decision makers as much as we like to think we are. So there are sort of other forces and entities at play here…
JC: …Sorry to interrupt, but I want to qualify something before we get too cold off the trail. While you’re influenced by Hollywood films, you’ve decided to take it up as a kind ethos rather than producing an actual Hollywood film. Since the best of Hollywood films are either adaptations of literature—Slaughterhouse Five is one example—or influenced by art, your attraction to the non-commercial side of cinema makes sense. At the same time, as someone who’s equally engaged in political protests, you’ve decided not to engage the documentary format, to not film the so-called revolution on the ground. Even so, the politics still drive, perhaps obliquely, your artwork…
PA: The first part—the avant-garde approach to Hollywood—was the product of film school. The second part—the political drive as you call it—is the product of the workplace, where I was working with mass media, with journalists and so on. A lot of filmmakers go into video journalism early in their career. There’s a demand for that in the Arab world, generally, and Lebanon, particularly. So I had a similar problem with televised journalism that I had with cinema. Similarly, Dziga Vertov back in the early days of the USSR wanted to divorce cinema completely from the influence of theater and literature, which he considered bourgeois art forms. He wanted to create a completely new art form for “the new man,” which obviously failed. But there was something interesting there, something cinema lost once sound was introduced. The influence of literature and theater were now more present. The emphasis on the word, on talking, conversations, singing in the rain and so on.
JC: It’s the 1920s when all this occurs…
PA: …Yeah, you had all these people working with this new technology that produced this big machine that was Hollywood. Or Soviet Cinema. Or those of Western Europe. But it also produced non-fiction and experimental cinema. And the more the technology was becoming easier to use, the more avant-garde and DIY stuff toke place. Eventually, though, that resulted in the advent of television and televised journalism’s chokehold on documentary and non-fiction film. In my films I wanted to get rid of journalism as much as possible. Getting rid of this idea of educational films for adults. That was not something I’m interested in. And this anti-formalist use of film and video leaked into the contemporary art world, at first critically but then ended up as a trope. That was something I also wanted to get rid of, I guess. Instead, I wanted to flip the archival-journalistic forms coupled with fictional content, which was common with the Post-War Lebanese artists. A reversal that produced fictional forms coupled with documentary content.
JC: I mean, the one thing that I understand about post-civil war Lebanon, is that there’s a lot of historical over-determination because history is what’s been lost. Through all the trauma, an older generation doesn’t talk about it and a younger one is thus barred from it. Consequently, history is being reconstructed (if not repeated) through these various political movements, with which we began our conversation. History is at once returning, while being remodeled into a fictional narrative. I’m not talking not about the diligent people who are maintaining historical archives, per se. Rather I’m talking about the deposed Prime Minister Saad Hariri—son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri—who founded the Future Movement in 2007. A movement, I would say, was cynically founded on what Freud would call a “screen memory” of Lebanon’s past. Prior to this, in 1994, Rafiq Hariri had initiated the redevelopment of Beirut’s post-civil war downtown—the city’s financial and governmental center—in coordination with Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. Solidere had attracted big-name multinational companies to Beirut in order to return the city to its fabled pre-civil war glory as “the Paris of the Middle East.” They even commissioned a promotional film entitled, Beirut: The Ancient City of the Future, that showcased the civil war ruins of central Beirut and, by using state of the art 3D graphics, transformed the city into Solidere’s retro-futurist vision. I should note that the graphics were created by Cinesite, the same company that made the feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. So “history” is a kind of plastic medium in Lebanon, it’s simultaneously being preserved, repressed, reconstructed and/or perverted. Parallel to the divide between artists and historians, then, there’s the divide between avant-gardists and documentarians. Not to mention the age-old polemic between poets and politics. Your work falls squarely in the middle of this forced Venn diagram of oppositions…which is a false dichotomy. For instance, there was the special issue of Art Journal (vol. 66, no. 2, Summer 2007), guest edited by Judith R. Rodenbeck, which introduced a first generation of post-civil war artists, two years following Hariri’s assassination in 2005, and one year after the Israeli-Arab war of 2006. The artwork from this period, like the artists’ consciousness, was very embedded in historicism. The artists Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari—founding architects of the Arab Image Foundation—typify this approach. Then there’s a subsequent generation of Lebanese artists more influenced by popular culture, along with abstract art, that has come to the fore, just as the former generation’s historicist drive has waned. Unfortunately, the latter has been polemically characterized as being apolitically nostalgic for the 1960s Beirut of the CIA rendezvouses and pool parties, with their bikinis and martinis. Between these two groups—in the neither nor space of this Venn diagram—is your cohort, which, I’m proposing, seems more focused upon what drops out of this polemical gaze, what both the historicists and abstractionists each overlook. Which brings us to the films you’re installing in Revolution Everywhere…
PA: We do want to talk about history, loss, nonexistent archives, the political present but we can do it while wearing bikinis and drinking martinis.
JC: Ha! That just means y’all are Californian.
PA: We definitely are.
JC: So let’s talk about your film This Haunting Memory That Is Not My Own….
PA: This Haunting Memory That Is Not My Own is the anticipation of the event—the August 4th port explosion— that destroyed the parts of the city I was exploring or investigating. Looking at the film retroactively, it sounds prophetic, but in reality I was talking about prior episodes of mass death and destruction. And of course the coming ecological collapse that’s going to turn the whole world into Beirut.
JC: Karantina is one part of Beirut that your film is speaking of…
PA: Yes. Karantina is the bastardization of the word quarantine. Historically, this part of the city was the place where whomever entered Beirut was kept for a period of time to see if they’re allowed to enter the social sphere. Most port cities used to have these policies. The first wave of refugees to settle there were Armenian, later Lebanese refugees from the south, Palestinians, Syrians, and others. So there was this amalgamation of refugee camps that was set up. And in 1976, the first attempt at ethnic cleansing during the Lebanese Civil War occurred there. Mainly authorities were targeting the camp’s Palestinian inhabitants, but there were others too. In the late 80s, one of the oil tankers got hit by a mortar and blew up there as well. So Karantina is the place of recurrent mass death and disaster. That’s what I was talking about in the film. And in retrospect it seems the film anticipated the Beirut port explosion, the subject matter of Billy Pilgrim Has Come Unstuck In Time.
JC: As for This Haunting Memory’s production timeline, you made the film definitely before the pandemic and the blast, but did you begin working on it before the October Revolution as well?
PA: The film was shot in the summer of 2019, a few months before the October Revolution. It was edited throughout the uprising with these intervals due to the situation. It was pretty difficult to sit down and focus. It was more or less finalized during the pandemic and it was being colored and mixed. And then comes the epilogue—Odorless Flowers Awake Prematurely— which is now the aftermath. It is this anticipation, apprehension of something dark heading our way from the future.
JC: So let’s dig into it. This Haunting Memory’s three main influences are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I’m sure there’s many others, but this literary triad is sort of the egg, water and flour of the film. I have to say, I love that you made me revisit Slaughterhouse Five. Like any good work of art, I’ll never be able to uncouple Slaughterhouse from Beirut and your film again…
PA: Amazing. So from Slaughterhouse Five, we get the temporal disjunction. The epilogue of the book is an essay about the impossibility of writing about a massacre. Then a fictionalized and somehow autobiographical story of a war veteran suffering from PTSD. That’s why the character’s experience of time was flattened, there was no past, present or future. He would just walk through a door and be five years old and then walk out of the other door and be back in World War Two.
JC: Hence the refrain: So it goes.
PA: And so it goes.
JC: Since we’re all going to die, experienced in a world where time is flat, these bad times are just one point in a narrative writ large. I mean, it’s totally cinematic. You can just go to another moment. You don’t have to stay with your own death.
PA: Yeah, the protagonist—Billy Pilgrim—is visited by these aliens, the Tralfamadorians, who have the ability to experience time like we sort of experience space. This is how he gets this gift-curse (this pharmakon) of time-travel. So from Vonnegut, from Slaughterhouse Five, we get the disjunction in time, the flattening of temporality. And then from The Mushroom of the End of the World, which is the story of Modernity and colonialism through a study of mushrooms that grow in forests disturbed by human activity, I took the idea of telling a story not only from a human point of view but also non-human: the silkworms, in my case. Silk was pretty much the trade or industry that helped create modern Lebanon.
JC: Right, in the area of Karantina.
PA: Which turned Beirut port into a dominant port in the area due to the silk trade. Because it was overlooked by the Ottomans, there was less oversight, which made it easier to trade with the West, the Italian city-states. Later, during the French colonial period, the Karantina port became the dominant one. So Haunting Memory is basically is telling the story of modern Lebanon through the point of view of one of its workers within its founding industry: the silkworm.
JC: Which brings us to Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. IN the end of that book there’s this wonderful passage on the Silkworm.
PA: Yes, where Sebald dissects how the Third Reich grew silkworms in classrooms as part of the national plan, as an allegory to eugenics and extermination. The silkworm was bred in a way so that completely domesticated it—like a human made being—to a point where it can no longer even fly. So it doesn’t do anything it did before, before it was domesticated for this purpose. It’s an apt allegory for biopolitics, which is something I wanted to also include because Beirut’s quarantine district was this area where police regulated bodies coming from outside. This policing of bodies produces what it means to be Lebanese. Just who is Lebanese…who came first, who came second, you know, the sectarian makeup of Lebanon makes it very complicated. Then this gets reinforced by a politics of identity, needed to create a modern nation state. And with the national identitarian ideology, you needed the second ingredient, the national industry to create the modern nation state. That industry was the silk industry. An industry that deals directly with nonhuman workers, the silkworms, in order to extract their reproductive labor power.
JC: It’s also Sebald who explains that by the time the Silkworm trade is unhooked from China, who had monopolized it for millennia, it’s transplanted in the 17th century first to England, France, Germany, and Austria then later in the 1920s to Lebanon. In all cases, it’s the women and children who are enslaved into this production…
PA: Yes, because the employers wanted small hands.
JC: …And our colleague Marie Muracciole, of Beirut Art Center, just recently reminded me that prostitution was associated with Lebanon’s Silk trade…
PA: It was the first time you had a proper female workforce in Lebanon.
JC: Also cultivation of silk is one of the most back breaking, tedious jobs you can do…so give it to women and children.
PA: I don’t remember the exact word, but I think the same word is colloquially used for both the silk factory and the whorehouse.
JC: In what language?
PA: In Lebanese-Arabic.
JC: Wow. But I made you lose your train of thought. It’s literally not the end of the world because the world rinses and repeats the exact same lessons over and over again. Therein lies the inherent contradiction to the concept of a singular apocalypse. It’s more like we have apocalypse seasons.
PA: This is where trouble comes in, this very apocalyptic outlook. Because in a way, through colonial history mainly, the apocalypse had recurrently taken place, had historically taken place, and is not just a speculative future possibility…And then there’s the third video, Billy Pilgrim Has Come Unstuck In Time, which is a line taken from Slaughterhouse. I’d been commissioned, along with three other artists, to make these videos for Beirut Art Center using only their security camera footage, while everyone was in lockdown.
JC: When were you commissioned to do it?
PA: We were commissioned in the early summer. As we were preparing, the blast happened and these cameras recorded how it affected the Center. There was no going back, it had to be in the works, it already was there. So, if This Haunting Memory is the anticipation of the disaster, then Odorless Blue Flowers is the aftermath. While Unstuck documents the event that created this fissure between the first and the second films.
JC: Yes, so the pandemic (as the film’s cause) and the blast (as the film’s subject matter) are the events, while the surveillance footage is the readymade index of those events. You, as a filmmaker, come into play as the editor of this readymade and hence the director of a catastrophe that has already happened, as Roland Barthes might say.
PA: The materiality of the video is shaped by the explosion, besides what was recorded in front of the camera. You can see the dust particles and other objects being thrown around the room, but you also have glitches that occur within the video itself since it is affected by the wave. That’s as documentary as you can get. More documentary than documentary.
JC: Makes the garden-variety documentarians angry.
PA: Exactly. And even more, it tells the story of the security guard who becomes unstuck in time. He can’t leave the building because time is out of joint and keeps going in circles. It’s science-fiction, but at the same time it’s as documentary as you can get.
JC: What’s amazing to me—something that defines an artist having a project, rather than just making things—is that your films all come from (and refer back to) the long historical arc of what we’ve been talking about. Haunting Memory literally spans from the political to the theoretical to the aesthetic as its brute material. What further amazes me is that you’ve made this piece within the shorter historical arc Beirut’s tragic trifecta of events. And the film exists now as an installation with the two other pieces in Revolution Everywhere, a filmic trilogy that you hadn’t anticipated when embarking on Haunting Memory. That’s what makes it a project. You didn’t say, “Well, I just made Haunting. So that’s done. Now I’ll make a piece about Covid, and another on the port tragedy.” To the contrary, they are all connected, with both you (the maker) and us (the viewers) reflectively unstuck in this time loop…
PA: It’s totally a loop because as I was finalizing This Haunting Memory I got a commission to make Unstuck. I finished that one and went back to finalize This Haunting Memory.
JC: So, yeah, yours is a model for a different kind of practice that’s not only between documentary and Hollywood cinema, between the gallery and theater, it’s also between the event and its (re)construction. Accordingly, there’s this infinite “gap between” that’s not just about being unstuck in time, but about being unstuck in genre, about being unstuck in discipline.