لحـظة مـن الزمـن
a moment in time
The Milk Bar cafeteria was a crucial hub of AUB student life and interaction. First built in 1962, and existing as an extension of the campus cafeteria, the Milk Bar provided the students of AUB with a safe, neutral space for debate, socializing, and personal growth. This space, removed from the trials and tribulations raging outside the walls of AUB, is remembered fondly by many who spent time there. The nostalgic memories associated with Milk Bar, combined with its colonial architecture, are two key focal points of again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura, whose exhibition site are the three vitrines of the AUB gallery. In this way, the exhibition seeks to recall the past and to reexamine it vis-à-vis the present, taking as its point of departure two primary signifiers: the arches within the gallery and the cinematic photo placed within the gallery’s middle vitrine. These signifiers, however, were not only the focal point of the exhibition; as a working method, the exhibition was intended to act as a form of archaeology, of both the exhibition’s signifying system as well as the gallery’s physical site. Therefore, to begin with the Milk Bar, one must examine its past, relative to the notion of memory and romanticism, both of which are inextricably linked.
Located on the first floor of West Hall, right above the post office, the Milk Bar was considered the “nucleus of the campus.” Functioning as a coffee shop, or, more specifically, a social gathering space as urban legend has it, the Milk Bar became a melting pot for student interactions and development. It was there that ideas were exchanged, friendships were built, love blossomed, and constructive discussions of politics and the world took place. For many, then, it is AUB’s “ground zero” for the creation of romanticized memories of a pre-civil war campus. Such memories are commonly conjured up counteract dystopic representations of Beirut around the same time. Accordingly, the Milk Bar, in its collective phantasy, seems to exist as a haven, where powerful, positive memories of one’s youth are harnessed as a kind of “intellectual pastoral” against the contemporaneous turbulent world at that time. In response, again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura, purposely appropriates a sentimental image of the Milk Bar as the signifier par excellence for our present-day, retroactive phantasy-projection onto this site. In so doing, we hope to encourage a kind of cross-pollination of mythological exposé buried within the collective representations student protests and the civil war, the subject of the flanking vitrines. Which is to say, by placing the Milk Bar’s “subjective” representation between the other “objective” ones, a certain “contamination” ensues: perhaps the student protests and the civil war are, in fact, just as romanticized in their ubiquitous “reportage” mode. These collective screen memories, formed within the larger Beiruti field, are what structure again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura. They also recall a repressed reality existing within the walls of AUB gallery.
This repressed reality – the former Milk Bar – first returns as a specter haunting the curator’s meticulous “narration” of The Permanent Collection exhibition installed in the gallery. As a whole, our supplementary exhibition is an attempt to capture and redirect this specter, which is to say, Milk Bar’s mythological essence. This specter is represented through a singular vitrine installation, one of the three vitrines that serve as the “membrane” between the gallery’s interior and exterior spaces. But the vitrines also function, in our hands, as repositories for collective memories, that hinge the past to the present. Memory – what we colloquially think of as “the spice of our thoughts” – is, in fact, as much reality as it is phantasy, evidenced by Freud’s famous theorization of “screen memories,” in which childhood events are constructed (in equal parts) of recollected past events and the moment of their contemporary recall. To repeat an event is therefore an attempt to recall a moment repressed in the past that is present within the present.
Repetition and memory therefore influence a second signifier we are proffering into this equation, namely the cinematic photograph in black and white representing people conversing and interacting.
This imposing black and white cinematic photo acts as a kind of mirror, whereby the visitor may find themselves as the subject of the show, should he or she allow themselves to be seduced by the sweetness and warmth of the Milk Bar’s image. If so, the visitor is transported to another moment in time, free from the memory of war and conflict, with all the problematics that might entail (is this not the precise phantasy intended by the Solidere development company’s reconstruction of downtown Beirut - the complete rubbing smooth of the past?) In this way, the curatorial decision to use a cinematic photograph – one that shows people socializing, interacting, and exchanging ideas and emotions – acts as a time machine of sorts, in that one can enter the image retrospectively with one’s mind but also phenomenologically with one’s body, due to the image’s size. By selecting a single picture, we attempt to revive the memory of Milk Bar in order to freeze it, momentarily, in time. As such, we focus on the “now,” tense which seems to exist between a historical past and a desired future. Furthermore, by intentionally situating the Milk Bar in the middle vitrine, working as a hinge between the historical “caesura” of the civil war and the student revolts, all notion of sequential time collapses. This leaves the visitor contemplating the Milk Bar’s specter within the current art gallery, representing, at once, the past when the Milk Bar was first built in 1962 and the present day where the exhibition of The Permanent Collection is taking place.
When Milk Bar was transformed into a gallery, the administration was mindful to respect the inherent architecture of the space. The arches – signifiers of the bygone Milk Bar – were kept as is, the interior of the space remains exactly as before, while the only real change was the construction of an interior wall serving as a backdrop for the three arches allowing the curator to hang artworks. These vitrines, formerly parts of large doors that allowed students in and out of the romanticized haven for growth and interaction, became window displays once the wall was constructed. Subsequently, the vitrines function as symbolic a representation of the previous doors, a kind of physical apparition of the site-as-screen memory. Meanwhile, within the gallery, the arches act as bold architectural pieces, artefacts of an Ottoman colonial influence that echoes throughout adjacent AUB buildings and greater Beirut alike. Furthermore, the name Milk Bar, itself, is a signifier of colonial influence, as the designation of this space as a “Milk Bar” is said to have originated with colonial British forces present in Lebanon during World War II. Thus, colonial influence on Lebanon and Beirut seeps its way into both the name and architecture of this site.
The narrative that again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura seeks to evoke through this individual portal – this singular vitrine – is a notion that Milk Bar succeeded in breaking down the barriers between “self” and “other,” as defined by different social statuses, as well as political and religious conflicts. The unique architecture of the Milk Bar, and subsequent art gallery, lends itself to the recollection of colonial influence within Lebanon and allows the visitors to dive deeper into the collective and personal history of the country and their safe haven within AUB, as tenuous as that may have historically been at times. As the gallery allows for discussions of the past, present, and future, so too did the Milk Bar provide a safe and constructive hub for discussion, growth, and change. By channeling the Milk Bar, we hope to replicate history on a physical and mental plane, presenting memory as both a tool of the mind, a physical point of recollection, and a metaphysical exploration of function and purpose.