Home/ Videos & Mixed Media/ Overlooking the Unsightly to See
  1- Condition of Vision
Jalal Toufic, Beirut

Walid Raad, New York:
I arrived in Lebanon on 10/23/1999. I was initially struck by the unsightliness of the nondescript architecture in much of Beirut. Almost all of those among the inhabitants of that city whom I encountered told me I would get habituated not only to the bad manners of its drivers but also to its architecture. One of them even volunteered: “You have to see not only the beautiful but also the ugly, otherwise you will never have the possibility of acceding to the abject and the sublime.” “The ugliness of the majority of the buildings of Beirut is not of the sort that allows one to continue to see it: it is unsightly.” When after a while I no longer complained about the latter, they thought that indeed I had gotten used to it. I began instead to nag about my new inability to write. My eyes were oppressed by the relentless mass of unsightly architecture and the constrictive arrangement of space, and so each time closed a little more. My initial impulse to use close shots to extract from these nondescript buildings something to see vanished. There came a day or night when my eyes had almost closed completely: “Though seeing, they do not see.” (Matthew 13:13). Then, momentarily, light, which no longer served to illuminate anything, rather than as usual making things visible while remaining itself unseen, became visible for itself, shone and glared with an unmitigated brilliance. Did this brilliant light complete the blindness of the eye from overexposure? No. On 12/5/1999, there occurred for the Nietzschian and Deleuzian writer that I am a kind of minor reversal of Platonism: my eyes opened again in the magnificent Jeita Cave. After being oppressed for weeks by the lack of empty space in the city—the pavements occupied and the parkings jammed by vehicles, and the narrow roads often blocked by cars disregarding the one-way signs—to see empty space even inside a mountain! I felt again the desire and ability to write. I realized then that my writer’s block was merely a symptom of my inability to see, and became aware how crucial vision is in my writing even when I am not addressing cinema or art or dance. Maybe with time, I would have resumed writing even without such an opening of the eye in the Jeita Cave, but my writing would have had to have changed radically, become linked to another sense: touch? Or would I, who does not smell except when people point out a scent for me, now smell (and consequently better remember)? I am considering starting a service in this country infamous for its hostage-taking that, for a reasonable fee, would provide incognitos who place over the passenger’s eyes on his or her arrival to Beirut’s international airport bandages to be removed only once he or she is in his or her apartment. It certainly was not to simulate the conditions of hostage-taking in much of what used to be West Beirut, but so as to be spared blindness on encountering so much unsightly architecture. What is preferable: that people see again at the risk of the resumption of a civil war to destroy so much revolting architecture? Or that they continue to be blind in the midst of the unsightly architecture?
At the airport, Walid Raad, the videomaker of The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs, 1996-1999, and the producer through the Atlas project of Hostage: the Bachar Tapes (English Version), 2000, is approached by two men who place blindfolds over his eyes and put him in a car and drive him to the Union Building at Spears Street in Sanayeh. There, he thanks the two men, pays them a hefty tip and then ascends to his apartment. “In Beirut, I drive and walk only in Achrafieh, the Central District, and the Sodeco area.” “Do these areas not include some ugliness?” “Yes, but not unrelenting unsightliness. When I have to move to another area, Hamra for example, I call the Blindfolds service, which was started by my friend Jalal Toufic. Why don’t you too put blindfolds when in Hamra street?” “Since as a film sound person I can see only when there is sound, be it ambient—I can actually see better then—but not the artificial silence that forms when one places one’s hand over one’s ears, I do my errands in Hamra street ears covered.” “What about you?” The addressee of this question, a writer, did not answer the question. Raad wondered how come being exposed to such unsightly architecture did not blind this visionary author? He later discovered that that person is a vampire, one who, as dead, did not see what was in front of his open eyes. Once, when he had to attend a meeting of an artistic association at the Hamra apartment of Saleh Barakat, the owner of the gallery Ajyal (Generations), the entire mobile staff of the Blindfolds service, two employees, happened to be sick. He tried hard to devise a way to go to the meeting without being affected by a loss of the ability to see as an effect of the unsightliness of the architecture. He ended up calling his friend Jalal Toufic for any suggestions. His friend’s suggestion was to walk there while videotaping all along the way with a camera having a black and white viewfinder, so that the act of seeing and therefore its consequences on him would be delayed till the viewing of the shots in actual color; and to later not to view the color footage, but tape over it. And that is indeed what he did: he walked to the meeting in Hamra while videotaping with a black and white digital video camera, at several points even crossing from one side of this street with no traffic lights to the other while still looking through the viewfinder. Then he gave the tape to his friend, who taped over it the lecture he gave as a visiting artist at Jalal’s Video Art class at Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK). “I now shoot two kinds of things: what I intend to possibly use in a video; and what I shoot precisely so as not to be exposed to the unsightly (shooting in film would have also worked, since in cinema, especially if one is not an excellent cameraman, vision happens truly only once the negative footage is developed—it thus suffices not to develop the negative. Unfortunately, shooting in film is too expensive).” The wives of several of the artists who used the Blindfolds service soon developed a fetish for that contrivance: “I want you to fuck me with the Blindfold on; I get such a sexual thrill when I see you in it.”
2- Instance of Vision
Van Gogh's Shoes in Beirut
(A Tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be)

A Pair of Shoes

Oil on canvas
34.0 x 41.5 cm
Paris: early 1887
F 333, JH 1236
Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection
A Pair of Shoes

Oil on canvas
44.0 x 53.0 cm
Arles: August 1888
F 461, JH 1569
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hamra Street Project, an event organized by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts “Ashkal Alwan” and Kentertainment, cinema Colisée, Beirut, Lebanon, 17-27 November 2000.


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