The Founding Director of Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, Christine Tohmé was named Curator of Sharjah Biennial 13 (SB13) in September 2015. Over the past year and a half she has put together an adventurous exhibition that features 60 international artists, whose work is being presented at multiple locations throughout the MENAM region. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the nomadic curator to discuss the scope of the expansive biennial and its related ideas.

I read that you got your start as a DJ and presenter at Radio Liban. How did that prepare you for a career in the fine arts?

My years of working as a DJ and radio presenter helped me realize how much I enjoy connecting to people and sharing ideas, opinions, artwork, feelings, etc. My engagement with the public sphere was always present—running in parallel to my interest in music—and in many ways both are similar gestures in the way they create a space for transmission and exchange.

What motivated you to establish Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, in 1993?

Ashkal Alwan was established through a collective effort by a group of peers, in response to specific conditions in post-war Beirut of the early 1990s. At the time the urban fabric was still fractured and bare, with little room for public discourse around cultural or civic issues. Our early events were aimed at introducing these discourses in the public realm, with programmes such as the Sanayeh Garden Project (1995), Corniche Project (1999) and the Hamra Street Project (2000). These efforts have by no means been concluded, as we constantly change and adapt to the needs, limitations and opportunities of the city, as well as to wider regional and global concerns. This mode of being is in a way what the Sharjah Biennial’s name Tamawuj suggests.

What’s the objective of this cultural space?

Ashkal Alwan is dedicated to facilitating art production, education and research, with a multiplicity of platforms to encourage a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to art. Our initiatives include the multidisciplinary platform Home Works: A Forum of Cultural Practices, initiated in 2001; Video Works, a grant and screening platform supporting the development, production and diffusion of projects by artists and filmmakers residing in Lebanon, which was created in 2006; and Home Workspace Program, a tuition-free, study program founded in 2011.

When did you first attend the Sharjah Biennial and what was your initial assessment of it?

I have been going to Sharjah Biennial since the sixth edition in 2003 and have always admired the way this event managed to transform itself over the years into a global meeting point.

Did you have any involvement with the Sharjah Art Foundation or the March Meetings prior to being chosen the curator of Sharjah Biennial 13?

I have been part of several March Meetings as a speaker and was part of the jury for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial Prize at the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial.

What’s the overarching theme of SB13?

SB13 is a proposition for a modus operandi. I’m used to drawing on my informal networks and personal bonds, and here I am applying that method to critically rethink the role of the biennial. Is it possible to rearrange and expand Sharjah Biennial’s structure—both in terms of time and space—in order to question the format of large-scale, centralized exhibitions? Can a global art event be locally rooted? And, if so, where would that root be localized? These are concerns that we are posing on a backdrop of infrastructural fragility within dozens of regional institutions. As such, channelling friendships and collaborations becomes a practicality that is necessary for the survival of many art landscapes, institutions and individuals.

Why did you expand the form of the biennial to four other sites and how did you choose these locations?

These localities were not selected for their geopolitical attributes but rather because of certain affinities that I share with people working passionately in these cities. We are trying to rethink a biennial as multiple temporal spaces shared through the informal structures that we have created and relied on for decades. It is about believing in plurality and opening up a conversation about what a biennial is and what it could do.

What do the four keywords—water, crops, earth and culinary—represent and how are they being explored?

I wanted to focus on how cultural practice seeps in and out of other power relations and larger infrastructures we’re surrounded by and how these four components—whether elemental or cultural—are in many ways resources that are in constant flux of migration, cultivation and contamination.
We started our conversations, as interlocutors, more than a year ago and continued it through an extended research phase into the four keywords in the five cities of Beirut, Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah and Sharjah—conducted by more than a dozen incredible researchers and artists. This wealth of material has been accumulated in the online research tool chip ship, which was created specifically for this project. These research inquiries formed the nucleus for programs conceived by each of the four interlocutors. So, as you can see, it is a process-based approach that employs channelling and transmission as strategies for making.

Who are the four “interlocutors,” or organizers, of these four projects and why were they picked to illuminate their particular keyword?

The four interlocutors are: Kader Attia working around the theme of water in Dakar; Zeynep Oz working in Istanbul around the theme of crops; Lara Khaldi working around the theme of earth in Ramallah; and Ashkal Alwan organizing the closing with the culinary theme in Beirut. The process of working with each of them was not so much a matter of selection but of continuing the conversations and collaborations that we’ve started many years ago, and injecting them into the structure of the Sharjah Biennial. Each keyword offers a pool of articulations, and I think we collectively agreed on their allocation with surprising ease, without overt speculation.

How are the interlocutors collaborating with people outside of the realm of art—such as architects, filmmakers, scientists, scholars, poets and performers—to engage the concepts represented by the keywords?

Each interlocutor envisions and conceives their own lines of inquiry around the keyword, as well as the program that derives from it. Since the emphasis is not on artistic production but on bringing people together to discuss and further expand on the given theme, there seemed to be an inherent interdisciplinarity to the programs. These could take the form of workshops, talks, seminars, commissions or spatial interventions. For instance, Kader Attia’s program in Dakar featured poets Rachida Madani and Pierre Amrouche, videos by artists Christoph Keller and Hito Steyrel and interventions by architects, curators and environmental activists—juxtaposing a multitude of proposals for knowledge sharing. The same goes for Lara Khaldi’s and Zeynep Oz’s approaches.

You have a list of 60 artists for the show in Sharjah, yet probably fewer Western artists that any previous Sharjah Biennial. What was the criterion for selecting these artists for the show?

I never think about the artists I want to work with in terms of nationality or background. What I find interesting is the concerns that drive them, the conditions of art making that they relate to and each one’s positioning to the world in general. I think the list reflects a healthy balance of artists that I have worked with before and those that I have never had a chance to work with until now. It is this diversity of works, and the way they converse with one another, that I value above any demographics.

What does the biennial’s title Tamawuj reference and how is it interpreted by some of the artists in the exhibition?

Tamawuj is an Arabic word meaning a rising and falling in waves; a flowing, swelling, surging or fluctuation; and a wavy, undulating appearance, outline or form—largely in reference to the resilience we all need to continue to operate under the conditions of the world today.
I tried not to impose the title on any of the artists, but instead to use it as a proposed gesture or a general mode of thinking around this edition and the themes I am examining.

Do you envision Tamawuj to be somewhat of a “social sculpture,” in a Joseph Beuys sense, where everyone, including the visitors, will help to shape the concept by continuing to discuss both the art and the issues addressed beyond the physical space and far into the future?

This is a fitting interpretation of what we are trying to do in this edition. The idea of extending conversations and supporting a range of people and organizations in continuing their endeavours—beyond the duration of the biennial—is among the main objectives. I am interested in the structural and pedagogical aspects of contemporary art practice, and the common spaces it can create outside the confined time and space of an art event. In a way, we are trying to catapult ideas and situations from the moment of the biennial, and into the future. Interventions are built to last and be used by people in Sharjah after the biennial; websites will hopefully continue to operate as virtual spaces of debate; but most importantly, ideas will continue to grow and circulate, offering more and more future articulations.

What type of international dialogue to the hope SB13 will activate or inspire?

There are questions and themes that the people involved with the biennial are concerned with and dedicated to, I’ve touched on a few of them in this interview, and hope to offer fertile grounds for others to think with and create discussions around. There are already dozens of people involved and contributing to this discussion: the researchers, artists, writers, interlocutors and the SB13 School participants. Additional contribution from the audience is anticipated with great excitement, as another vital element in this ecosystem of ebbs and flows. We do what we can do to instil hope—this is what my work has been about for the past 24 years.