1.When was ArteEast’s Quarterly established? What prompted its creation?
RS: I am not sure I remember exactly the year, it might have been 2004 or 2005, but what I do recall more distinctly is that we were in the process of revamping the ArteEast website, which was useful in listing the association’s past and current activities, at a time when there was little information available in English, on the internet about cultural production from the Middle East. We realized that our site was visited quite frequently, more than we expected it to be, and we decided to make it more significant and impactful, and rather than produce a simple electronic newsletter, we decided to invest our resources and network of contacts in ‘production of knowledge’. We wanted the quarterly to be diverse and plural, relevant, accessible and enjoyable. We invited a guest editor for every issue and dedicated some resources for soliciting texts. After the first couple of issues, we realized it was successful and t became an important element in ArteEast’s programming.
2. What audiences did the Quarterly target?
RS: The general ArteEast audience that attended our events, or attended events in which we were active collaborators (i.e. outside New York City), but also academics, students, and people who were generally interested in learning more about the Middle East.
3. The Quarterly covers Middle Eastern art in English. Did you also think of ways of reaching non-English speaking Arab audiences? Was language ever a “problem”?
RS: At the time, ArteEast was organizing regular events (film screenings, conferences, exhibitions, etc.) in New York City, and collaborating with universities, associations and museums in the US. So English made sense. We were also operating with a shoe-string budget and translating anything to Arabic, Turkish, Farsi or any other language would have been very expensive. When we could dedicate resources to translation, we did the reverse, translate to English from Arabic, Turkish or Farsi. At the time, I suppose we perceived our primary audience to be in the US and English-speaking. Perhaps it was a misconception, or narrow-minded. Language was always a question, and remains so almost everywhere, don’t you think? In the EU, right after the Brexit vote, one of the recurring comments was that English no longer needed to be the de facto lingua franca for inter-European communication.
4. Why a new guest editor with every issue? Were some issues edited in-house?
RS: We purposefully sought a plurality of voices and sensibilities, and we also wanted to dedicate the focus of the Quarterly to different disciplines. The back-end work was always done by our team. When we did not have enough funds to invite a guest-editor, we edited some in-house. We also translated in-house when we had to. ArteEast was really a labor of love in the first few years of its operation, people donated their time and energy, and sometimes resources. There was a real urgency to counter the prevailing perceptions of the Middle East after September 11th 2001, during the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the atmosphere of terror and demonization of Middle Eastern communities in the US at the hands of Homeland Security.
5. What editorial agenda did the Quarterly seek to promote?
RS: The “agenda” was relatively loose and organic, and by that I mean that we would often come up with ideas about guest editors and/or themes based on encounters with people, artists or intellectuals. The mindset was very clear to us, we wanted to foreground creative counter-cultural approaches to representing, narrating, thinking and interrogating the art and cultural scenes in the Middle East. We wanted to avoid the trappings of exoticization, didacticism, pedantry, sophistry, promote serious but not precious writing about and from the region.
6. You are a cinema critic and writer who curated compelling international programs on Arab cinema such as Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s until Now, and The Road to Damascus, among others. Was the Quarterly a platform to explore your interests? Did you ever think of creating a more specialized kind of publication, like Les Cahiers? What other arts and culture magazines were you in dialogue with?
RS: Indeed Mapping Subjectivity was born from the issue of the Quarterly dedicated to the history of ciné-clubs in the Arab world of the 1960s and 1970s. I was in Damascus visiting friends and the late documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay told a story about a film festival hosted by the Damascus ciné-club in collaboration with the Cahiers actually, with Serge Daney. I listened to him fascinated and realized there was a whole history of experiencing cinema that I was not aware of and that was under-studied. So I proposed to explore this history in other Arab cities. At the time, a very dear friend, and great Algerian journalist, Daikha Dridi, was living in Cairo. I invited her to be the co-editor and we ‘divided’ tasks. In the process of interviewing people, I realized that there is another ‘un-written’ history of engagement with experimentation that deserved to be explored. After we published the issue, we applied for a grant to do research into experimental cinema in the Arab world. I was lucky to visit some archives and conduct more interviews in Cairo, Casablanca, Algiers and Damascus. And soon we had the skeleton for a proposal. A friend recommended we approach the late Jytte Jensen, a fantastic curator at the MoMA’s film department. And thus was Mapping Subjectivity born. It took time, a great deal of fundraising, a lot of meetings, but it happened.
I never wanted to reproduce the Cahiers. I do think we need hundreds of more critics and writers to engage with film, art and all the other creative disciplines, but the contemporary version of the Cahiers is not the sort of critical platform that is most urgent. For one, humor is key to any form of engagement with the Middle East, sadly, the Cahiers is utterly humorless.
7. You recently co-curated the exhibition Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978. For the Quarterly, you interviewed Omar Amiralay on the beginning of Nadi al-Sinama in Damascus. Your work often addresses regional histories of engaged and politicized forms of cultural production. Can the magazine, as a medium, enable historiography and the dissemination and democratization of archives?
RS: Absolutely. Even though I have a fetish for print and paper, I think electronic magazines can do wonders in terms of democratizing the access to production of knowledge. When I was invited by Natasa Petresin to co-edit three issues of the Manifesta Journal, that was the first step we fought for, to transform the magazine to a web-based platform. If readers wanted a hard-print copy of the journal, they could pay for it and receive it in the mail.
8. What are you working on now?
RS: Still preparing more editions of Past Disquiet, the exhibition should be presented in Beirut, and ideally in Ramallah. I am also involved in screenwriting and producing. I basically jumped the fence from programming to the other side.
RS: Thank you!