The third vitrine, comprising again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura, showcases the historical and political significance of the student protests in at AUB. As was our working method, the vitrine’s installation was conceived from the displacement of a key signifier located within The Permanent Collection: an accidental ink stain marking the surface of Farid Haddad’s painting, produced in a moment of AUB’s historical unrest, rupture, and repetition.
Throughout the late sixties and early seventies AUB’s campus was the target of increasing student protests, mirroring the social and political schema of Lebanon at the time. In 1967, after the end of the Six-Day War (a.k.a the Arab-Israeli War), displaced Palestinians lost hope in Arab leadership and decided to take matters into their own hands. Subsequently, a broader activism was born alongside the Palestinian Revolution, one which led to students protests encouraged by students at the University. Initiatives to revive the Student Council were taken, and in 1969 the Council was reborn. Between 1970 and 1971 the different political groups (Kata’ib, Rabita, Tanzim etc.) fought to be recognized on the political map, a strike breaking out on the 13th of May of 1971 against the Administration’s 10% tuition increase. In 1973-1974, at the dawn of the Lebanese Civil War and parallel to the fourth Arab-Israeli war, armed strikes took place between the different student political factions alongside more protests against the 10% tuition increase. All of this led to the staining of Farid Haddad’s precariously placed painting by student protestors.
This mounting repetition of student protests, in less than five years, reveals the intense repetition of history and the violence of the historical narrative. The banality of the ink stain is illusionistic, as the stain becomes the visual sign of this physical action. The physical manifestation of the historical moment – what we are calling a caesura, in that normative quotidian affairs freezes – showcases the sublation of life into art. Which is to say, the painting is suddenly interlocked, transformed and changed not only by history, but also by the struggle of everyday life and political conflicts. The background of the vitrine reveals this struggle. The white color –representing the white cube– and the grey color – reminiscent of history, narrative and the ink stain – together connote the tension, separation and suture between art and life, historical narratives, nations and student protests. Moreover, it questions the validity or extent of art’s autonomy, marred, as the painting is, by the banality of life’s contingent events. In this way, the artist is no longer bares sole “authorship” of his artwork; rather he is forced to share this status with the student protestors, the vandals, history, the event, and the current exhibition’s appropriation of it. Moreover, the artwork is no longer just an artwork but an artifact as well, and, in turn, history is not just political but likewise artistic. In this way, Haddad’s painting locks the grander narrative of AUB’s student protests into the ongoing regional problems at the time. The stain and its reveal unfold the chain of relationships between the political and the economical struggles of the country with its educational institutions: the stain is retraced to the protests, the protests to the political parties, and finally, the political parties to the Middle Eastern political and economic schema.
By choosing anecdotes to visually retrace the student protests – their struggle, the historical rupture, and consequent repetition – the vitrine’s contents not only “stain” history and art with language, they also preserve emotions and memory. This occurs by showcasing the nature of the interactions between the protestors, the space, and the testimonial recollections, all of which are communication and verbal cognition. For that reason, language is more than the will to communicate. Rather, language is transformed into an action, evidenced by the verb “chanted” in the anecdote. Appropriated by the curatorial team from Makram Rabbat’s book, Campus At War, the anecdotes convey the power of the “total” event is represented by the montage of language used by the author, the students protestors, and the lingering memory of that language:
“No to the 10%! No to Imperialism! […] full on confrontation.”
Not only does the anecdote embodies the specificities of the passions and intensities of the historical caesura, it personifies the site-specificity of the event and the internal mechanisms of three imbricated institutions, i.e. the student body, the university’s administration vis-à-vis the Lebanese nation:
“The Strike became institutionalized […] the Student Council was in virtual control of the University.”
Through this language – and those words the anecdote reactivates the event in the memory of the viewer, so that the protests transcend time and are re-born in the present. From this perspective, the vitrine visualizes the history and memory of the protest through the graphic representation of language; the site-specificity of which is furthermore heightened by the translation of the anecdotes from English to French and Arabic. The use of these three languages is specific to Lebanon and AUB, revealing the historical and political context of the protests and the grander narrative of Lebanon and the Middle Eastern region. More specifically, it discloses the corresponding history of the region: from the Arab conquests in the Middle Ages, to the trading routes from the 15th century, the French mandates, and the ties with the United States. The fronts used represent this. English, the most commonly used language at AUB has a simple yet powerful font, showcasing the power struggle. French is italicized with a nostalgic style, alluding to the urgency of the confrontation, and referencing the different political sides of the protest. While Arabic is written in black to contrast with the other languages, linking the protest and the country to its surrounding region. Without this display of languages – and the implied connotations and stylization it is impossible to understand or access the significance of the vitrine, the caesura, and history. Nor would the specific memories, artworks, and actions be discerned. Henceforth, the text becomes a necessary reference to access the artwork, the exhibition and the vitrine. It shifts the cognitive emphasis of the artwork and history from a material object to a conceptual content. In this way, language is crucial to the exhibition as the critical and theoretical aspect of both art and language are incorporated as conceptual art and exhibition production, and, correspondingly, the line between artwork, history and text are blurred.
From this perspective, the importance of the language leads to the third signifier of the vitrine, which is Rabbat’s Campus At War. The book contains the word-language necessary to convey the events, along with anecdotes that give the reader and viewer access to the historical narrative. In a sense, the book and vitrine – in both form and content – are not only physical and linguistic mnemonic crystallizations of the historical protests at AUB and in the region, they also mirror the repetition of this dual history in recent years, some forty years after the seventies protests. Although the political parties from that era are not all the same and the circumstances surrounding the protests have changed, the reasons behind those protests have, indeed, remained the same. One can simply recall the 2007, 2014, and 2017 protests – with additional protests before and in between – that dissented tuition increase, budget cuts and political parties battling on AUB’s campus. The Student Council itself is still alive and renewed on a yearly basis. And its elections remain a historical battlefield for political parties’ affirmation of power and control. As with prior protests, the “new” ones are influenced by Lebanon’s political and social schema, encroaching imperialism, and Middle Eastern conflicts. Witness the US budget cut for Palestinian student scholarships, for instance. Viewed through this lens, it becomes evident that both history and its account in Campus At War have either been re-born in the present or have never passed at all. It is a constant loop of historical re-emergence and a history that never quite seems to die. Rather, it seems to be constantly resuscitated.
As such, the event, the caesura – through Haddad’s book, Lebanese history and the vitrine’s display – re-emerge in the present again and again, making the event an atemporal time traveler of sorts, one spanning two centuries and three different historical epochs of Lebanon. Subsequently, Campus At War is a linguistic and photographic archive in that it emotionally, materially, historically, linguistically and visually collects the verbal, photographic, anecdotal and national documentary memories of the student protests. It furthermore locates space, time, action, and interaction between the original protestors and the historical event, the caesura between then and now, and, finally, the present-day reader’s suture with that event. In so doing, the book regroups all those different accounts of all those different events into one totalizing narrative of a campus and students at war. In parallel, The Permanent Collection exhibition – from which again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura derives – sets out to construct a totalizing narrative dialectically dependent upon fringed narratives – anecdotes, photographs, testimonials – in the hopes of creating a singular collective memory. In response, our exhibition navigates and generates a dreamscape of different dreamscapes: The Permanent Collection, the student protest, the book’s account and more. We enfold into that, even, the dream of different dreams, that of a historical totalizing Lebanese account, and its memory. In the end, again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time – caesura becomes an archive and event at the same time, solidifying and critiquing our understanding of history and its peripheries.