I had already booked my ticket to Lebanon to see family and friends when I received the invitation to contribute to this year’s Open Engagement’s blog. I set up my mind that I would work on something that involves the Syrian refugee camp in Bekaa, where my parents live and where I grew up, 30 minutes away from the Syrian border. It seemed pertinent to explore what power means in such a desperate and explicitly political context. In the three weeks of familial, gastronomical, libidinal, and professional indulgence, I did not visit the camp.
The anecdotal predisposition of this text, hitherto and hereafter, takes its alibi from the form prescribed on the invited contributions: a blog. Therefore, this is me blogging.
On the last day at my parent’s house, a Monday, before coming back to San Francisco, guilt and anxiety around the unfulfilled project crept in. It was too late to visit the camp, let alone create work for the blog. Mondays are my mother’s militant cleaning days after typical weekends of “throngs and detritus,” as described by her OCD tendencies. Oum Ahmad is the woman my mom recruited to help clean the house.
“Where is she from?” I asked.
“Syria, a refugee” mother replied.
An attempted inquiry into power and its dynamics unfolding elsewhere, in the refugee camp, was already at play here, at my parent’s house. With a couple of hours left before departing, I headed towards the kitchen.
I learned about Oum Ahmad as I was asking her some of the questions posed by this year’s OE’s curator René de Guzman. Yes, I fled from responding to the questions myself and took refuge in a Syrian refugee’s answers, whose conditions brought her to my parent’s kitchen. This is not a devaluation of the profession of house cleaning, or its essentializing as always already powerless, but a questioning of the conditions of power that allow one and deny one to make a choice, and the dynamics that ensue. The uncomfortable unasked for privilege and power position I found myself in was unwavering. No, we do not have the same status. Mine is a refuge in verbose, the most it could do is bring a work, a debate, to life; hers is a refuge in silence, the least it could do is preserve her life.
What form will this interview/Q&A/(failed) guilt catharsis take?
Over and again, the menacing, begging, challenging, and indispensible question of form, particularly vis-à-vis the constellation of practices we dub social practice, public practice, socially engaged projects, participatory art…
I was armed with an iPhone, and I shot Oum Ahmad using my phone’s camera. “Shot on iPhone 6” was Apple’s latest campaign on its state-of-the-art phone camera, that empowers its users to take seducing photographs wherever they are: a mountain top, a beach, by a lake, on a rooftop, in a forest … Syrians are also being shot on iPhone 6, 5, 4, and all the android family. The Syrian war presents a curious precarious visual case where the archive, far from a unidirectional tendency, is growing through the voluntarily contribution of multitudes and proxies, with different affiliations, perspectives, and phones.
I was chatting with my sister and she pointed me to an emerging form in documentary image making: citizen journalism. The term and the field growing under it beg for elaboration that these lines cannot entertain for the time being. But what’s worth highlighting is the kinship between citizen journalism and social practice, particularly in how the former is also coupled with the buzz terms public, participatory, democratic, guerrilla, or street.
Shot on iPhone 4, the video below is not citizen journalism because Oum Ahmad is citizenless. A last refuge: in God for her, in the form of an internet artifact for me.
Omar Mismar is a visual artist born in Lebanon. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut. After moving to San Francisco on a Fulbright scholarship, he completed an MFA in Fine Arts-Social Practice and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts. Mismar worked as a graphic designer at Mind the gap, the Beirut-based design studio with a varied portfolio in designing publications, campaigns, cultural projects, and exhibitions. He was a participating artist, designer, and co-editor for the book Queer Geographies: Beirut Tijuana Copenhagen. Mismar taught at the department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut in 2011-2012. Currently, he is a practicing artist teaching at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts.