This week, ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with Siska as part of this series.
Siska was born in Beirut and resides primarily in Berlin. He holds a Master’s degree in Film and Audiovisual Arts from the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. A key figure in the early Beiruti graffiti scene, Siska has also produced and performed music as part of the Lebanese Hip Hop group Kitaa Beirut قطاع بيروت. A large part of his practice involves archeology, examining socio-political narratives in relation to personal and collective memories. It is common for his work to take the form of extended cinema where he applies cinematic codes as well as film language in order to explore various visual narrative techniques. At the Haus der Statistics in Berlin in August 2021, he co-curated a series of conversations, films, readings, and live performances as the artistic director of redeem رديم , a platform for ongoing conversations between voices from Beirut in Berlin. Additionally, Siska has collaborated on numerous performance and music productions, taking a midway point between his career as a visual artist and musician. In 2022, he completed his residency and fellowship at Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. Siska’s work has been internationally shown, including Martin Gropius Bau (Berlin), Halle 14 (Leipzig), Paris 104 (Paris), Beirut Exhibition Center (Beirut), Mosaic Rooms (London), Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) and Silent Green Kulturquartier among others.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Siska: It is common for me to explore several themes in my work, including memory, exile, displacement, trauma, identity, and politics. From these themes, I create visual narratives. I often apply film language and cinematic codes to activate an archive. Artistically, I am not interested in treating archive footage. Instead of the image itself, I might be more drawn to its materiality and the history it exhibits. Providing insight into how parts of history can be erased when they are willfully overlooked. It is visible in my film works that I am interested in the physicality of analog film and the metamorphosis of an image. What this image means in the present-day and how it impacts our lives today. This provides me with the freedom to experiment with alternative forms of storytelling and my own biography. I consider that the theme of archives has played a significant role in the post-civil war history of Lebanese art as a whole. This is because we don’t have archival institutions, so archives are scattered around the country and belong more to private institutions than to public ones. We must develop our own methods of digging and utilize our own tools and resources in order to conduct research. This results in archives becoming more of a discovery, similar to archeology in Lebanese contexts. As I observe a contemporary crisis or situation, like the port explosion, for example, my first instinct is to dig deep into the past to discover a link, a latent logic. Perhaps it is more for myself and my understanding of what has happened and continues to happen.
I also work as an organizer and curator: The events in Beirut caused a large community of local and foreign artists to leave it. As a result, and to take action, I applied for a grant from the Berlin Senate in 2020, usually for Berlin-based artists to produce artworks here. Through this money, I initiated a platform that bridges the two cities and organized a series of workshops and events in 2021-2022. In times of crisis bringing people together in dialogue is crucial. redeem رديم is a platform for ongoing conversations between voices from Beirut in Berlin and peers around the world. It acts upon a collaborative desire to amplify and deepen an already existing exchange between cultural workers who lived and worked in Lebanon before the country spiraled into its current economic and political void. The Arabic word for redeem is “radim,” which means rubble. In English redeem is derived from redemption and pertains to the economy and money. Therefore, the title represented the current situation in Lebanon and was somehow relevant to it. redeem رديم was founded by artists to create a self-sustaining platform. We were unable to invite cultural workers from Lebanon because of funding rules, but we incorporated artists living in Berlin and Europe instead.
AE: Port Fiction is a web-based audiovisual documentary project dealing with the explosion in the Beirut port in 2020, done collaboratively by a group of artists from Lebanon and Germany. Why was it important for you to take part in this project?
S: Since living in Germany for almost 15 years, I have always tried to put both countries on the map in my work. As part of my research into the migration between Lebanon and Germany that mainly occurred during the Civil War, I examined the parallelism between both countries. Berlin and Beirut, cities that share a division between east and west, were compared through a film installation. Latent Border(s) is a metaphor for psychological and economic manifestations of border segregation and political migration. The installation addresses the so-called issues of illegal migration and the micro-economies borders have long originated. Clemens Külberg was an encounter I had during my research that would lead to my collaboration with him on Port Fiction. Clemens was a sailor who traveled frequently from Hamburg to Beirut between 1972 and 2006. Initially, I sought an opportunity to pursue this project further. Once I had contact with Moritz Frischkorn, I was intrigued by the project, particularly since it focused on Hamburg and Beirut. It was difficult for Lebanese artists, including me, to express themselves creatively and to reflect on what happened in Beirut for an extended period of time. As a result, Port Fiction became a reason for me to reach outside my comfort zone and inspect my artistic abilities, exploring a very sensitive subject via aspects of trauma. In the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, I felt responsible for more than just assisting my friends and family members. I decided to document the explosion scene on analog film to memorialize and immortalize this tragedy. No matter what happens, those images cannot be deleted since a negative film copy can always be copied. This was the first step in developing what later became a narrative.
AE: Although Port Fiction is a collaborative piece, can you tell us about The Last of a Time, which you developed for this project?
S: Having to work collaboratively was one of the things that attracted me to Port Fiction, since most of my career, I was more interested in collaborative endeavors than solo work. While The Last of a Time was my personal contribution to the project it was again in collaboration with Clemens Külberg, based on interviews with him and his photographic archive. Clemens was a seaman who traveled frequently to Lebanon between 1972 and 1986 while working for Deutsche Seereederei Rostock DSR, the former East German state shipping company. As Clemens explains, he was an amateur photographer who documented his arrivals in Beirut from the seaside, the harbor, and downtown. As an outsider to the city, he watched how this place evolved from thriving to tragic. I was struck by his photographs taken during the first week of the Civil War in the early 1970s, in the port of Beirut, where the port is bombarded, fumes come from the hangars, and the sky is orange, since some of the images were captured at sunrise. At first glance, these images created total confusion for me, visually, as I thought they were taken on August 4th 2020 before the port blast. Media coverage of the explosion was seen by everyone. Repeated without ceasing, it was never-ending. As a result, I believe many who witnessed those awful seconds before and during the explosion can relate to what I’m trying to describe. Clemens and I began collaborating at this point. Particularly when I met him and told him I wanted to exchange ideas with him. This is because in my work I always used the city gaze looking toward the sea and the horizon. As opposed to his perspective on the city from the Horizon. I described it as a shot counter shot. I was surprised to discover that both of us saw the political conflict from similar perspectives even though we had different backgrounds. He had a very vivid memory of his time in Beirut. He told stories in such an engaging way that I began to think about parts that related to my memory. For example, the story about the watch he tells in one of the video interviews and the ticking bomb that I refer to as “child’s game”, which is related to both our emotional traumas. Quote from The Last of a Time: “ I remember, when I was a kid, I used to play a kind of game: When I passed a car, I would count down as if it was going to explode. Each time I passed another car, I started counting again. It was a child’s game I had made up because of all the car bombs that happened in Beirut at the time. Back then, I was protecting myself by counting the ticking time of a bomb. The painful protection mechanism I developed as a kid is still part of me: Sure, none of the cars I counted exploded, but by constantly measuring the passing of potentially lethal time, I developed a special bond with watches.”
In my practice, architecture and monuments become recurrent landmarks for specific periods or events. I am interested in how architecture can shape our collective memory and narratives. In Beirut, for instance, the electricity building symbolized corruption to me and reflected a country that never really dealt with its past. Which led me to work on the building and look at it from a personal perspective. In 2011, when I filmed EDL, I was physically very close to the port. EDL stands for Electricité Du Liban also known as Beirut’s electricity building. Beirut and its suburbs currently suffer from power cuts between 22 and 23 hours per day, making this building highly politicized. It was built in 1968 by the architect Pierre Nehme, who studied under Le Corbusier and was influenced by Oscar Niemeyer. He designed this 13-story modernist building that seems like a social housing building overlooking the horizon and the port. I looked at this landmark as a symbol of state failure, modernism, and hierarchical corruption. However, I did not know that there was a potentially explosive place right across the street just a couple hundred meters from it. While I was filming inside the building, I was continuously focused on the horizon. This was for me a window into the unknown future of this country. A massive blast struck the building on August 4th, 2020, killing many people. Due to the building’s close proximity to Beirut’s port, it was damaged and destroyed in large parts. It is unfortunate that the explosion turned the footage shot in 2011 into historical evidence, while the building and its surrounding areas became crime scenes. As a result of this footage, I was inspired to reexamine it and incorporate parts of it into the narrative of The Last of a Time that revolves around a continuous struggle. Prior to leaving Beirut in 2009, I always suspected something would happen, but I didn’t know what. There must have been many Lebanese who felt the same way about what could potentially happen to this country. Throughout my artistic career, I always hinted at something, but it was only subconscious.
AE: As part of Port Fiction’s development, the Beirut-based participating artists, in addition to you, traveled to Hamburg, and took part in collective walks and workshops so as to experience for themselves aspects that connected and differentiated the two cities. What was that experience like for you and how do you think it informed your input in the collective project?
S: I found the development process to be very interesting because it took different forms at different stages. During the process of working on Port Fiction, I particularly enjoyed the time we spent together as a collective in Hamburg researching the city and the port. Personally, I always find it very worthwhile to be in a place, feel the space, and reflect. I enjoyed working with the other team members and colleagues a lot. For some of us it was difficult adapting to connecting Hamburg to Beirut. A mobile app was developed for Hamburg´s performative walks. In one particular assignment, we made short videos and sound recordings in Beirut and uploaded them to the app. As a result, we were able to bridge the gap between the two cities and create an audio-visual connection between them. There were a number of characteristics reminiscent of Beirut in this research process, as well as a couple of factors that were extremely significant to me. One of them was the encounter with the Hamburg-based consulting agency HPC that released a plan for how to reconstruct the port of Beirut in 2021. As we met in a café near the harbor in Hamburg, I became intrigued by the design they had for Beirut as a utopian harbor city. However, their futuristic vision didn’t reflect the needs of the people. As a result, when I asked the person to explain the design on the map of Beirut and on my phone, they said that I was the first Lebanese they had ever met. This put a big question mark on my head. I mean the explosion of the port devastated large parts of the city, claimed over 200 lives and deprived many more residents of their livelihoods. It was my belief that Hamburg citizens should ask themselves how Hamburg would have responded to an explosion in their harbor like the explosion in Beirut. To swap places. I drew this scenario for my research and myself, but it was also very present in the overall project.
AE: What or who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
S: The cities in which I have lived have always influenced my creativity. Generally, I approach my work from a multidisciplinary perspective. There is no doubt that my upbringing in Beirut has had an influence on my practice. Growing up in this city, and living in this political chaos, wars, and crises, I always felt the need to express myself. Already at a very young age, I began expressing my views using different methods to draw attention to the issues I wanted to highlight. This included music, hiphop, lyricism, graffiti, photography, film, performance and visual arts. When you are an artist in Beirut, you often run into dead ends. Whether it’s the lack of support available, corruption, censorship, or just the pressure society puts on you. Creating my work was always a challenge, but I also had to protect it. It was a completely different experience coming to Berlin. It allowed me to reconnect differently with my work and gave me the space to revisit it and continue working on it.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any new projects or exhibitions upcoming in 2023-2024?
S: In 2022, I completed a residency in Villa Aurora in Los Angeles and I am currently preparing for the exhibition here in Berlin that will open in October 2023, to show works that I produced there. J€SUS $AVES for example is an ongoing work in progress that explores the archeology of Hollywood as well as Arab fetishism in cinema and the early film industry. It is a reflection on how Hollywood’s influence can shape our perceptions of race, gender, and power. In Los Angeles, I initiated research and shot 16mm films. In the dunes near Guadalupe, California, midway between San Francisco and L.A., Cecil B. DeMille constructed the largest movie set in history for his silent film, The Ten Commandments. The set was called “The City of the Pharaoh”. Following filming, DeMille ordered that the entire set be dismantled and secretly buried in the dunes. J€SUS $AVES uses this as a launching point to explore themes of cultural appropriation and belonging.
As a final note, I am pleased and proud to announce the release of the album I produced with Felix Claßen, Berlin-based musician, producer and sound artist. Mutradim مُتَرَدِّمْ is our first joint release. Exploring the tension between experimental electronic club music and Arabic-language rap and Lyricisim. Investigating asymmetries of power, regimes of misconduct, and their acute consequences within overlapping spaces of reverberating references. We searched for answers to the tragedy that left us all speechless on August 4, 2020, in Beirut’s port. In September 2023, the tracks will be performed live for the first time in Berlin.