On Artist-Run Spaces: A Conversation
with 98Weeks Reasearch / Project Space
This conversation is part of the series Notes on Collectivity, funded by Mophradat
The following conversation was conducted in January 2022 via Zoom (from Beirut, Oslo, Berlin and New York) with the founding members of 98Weeks Research / Project Space, writer Mirene Arsanios and visual artist Marwa Arsanios. We were interested in the different forms of production and organization instigated by this project, and also in the ways the physical space influenced the research and vice versa.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Mirene. Before we start, I wanted to know, what is the Camelia Committee? What do you do together?
Carine. We came together in March 2020, approximately at the same time the pandemic started. I was already working separately with Nour and Mira — who are both filmmakers – as a co-writer and an editor. We started to note similarities in the work process.
Nour. When we first started working together, we did not have the desire to produce collective work but to see if we could create a sort of mini pool of resources, a way to constantly keep ideas circulating between us, instead of one person carrying their projects alone.
Mira. The first concrete project we had together was the residency at Beirut Art Center from January until June 2021, which resulted in an exhibition.
Marwa. The three of you come from cinema where it’s more common to work together. But in the arts, even though there is a history of collective work, I don’t think it’s a necessity, at least not as much as it is in film and the structures in place do not necessarily encourage collective work.
Carine. [Artist and graphic designer] Karine Wehbe recently told me that you worked together on a publication where you asked people about their practices of working together.
Mirene. Yes, that’s true. It was a small publication called How to make (nice) things happen. I think I must still have a pdf of it. This brings me back to the fact that our archiving process wasn’t systematic. There’s a 98Weeks box filled with folders and documents in my father’s apartment, but I didn’t digitize any of it. I don’t know what your thoughts are on this Marwa. We’re missing parts from the narrative. Especially now, 10 years later.
Carine. What year did 98Weeks Research / Project Space start? And how did it begin?
Marwa. We started in 2007, actually at the end of 2007.
Mirene. I think it’s the outcome of a moment, as you said, a moment or a set of relationships or shared interests or ideas in a shared environment. Marwa and I were both studying in London, and we spent a lot of time together. We moved back to Beirut after we graduated, and we both wanted to see certain things happen or invite certain artists to Beirut, as a continuation of the conversations we were having in London. 98Weeks was a project which resulted from these specific years. I don’t think that we said: “Oh, let’s make a collective”. I don’t think we did that.
Marwa. I remember we were actually with Karine Wehbe, at her office in Espace SD1Espace SD was a multipurpose art space in Gemmayzeh. Launched in 1998 by Wadih Safieddine [producer] and Karine Wehbe, it was managed by Sandra Dagher [curator] as of 2000 and until its closer in April 2007, and we were thinking of a structure that could allow us to invite people, run workshops, and continue the research we were involved in during our masters in university. And that’s when we started thinking about this two-year structure, focusing on a specific topic through different formats.
Carine. Was it only the two of you at the beginning?
Marwa. Yes, but we were in conversation with so many people. I remember [graphic designer and researcher] Alya Karamé did the logo. Karine Wehbe was there, we were using her space and she was very much involved. More friends were also involved, in different capacities (Siska [artist], Franziska Pierwoss [artist], Setareh Shahbazi [artist], David Khater [painter], Bechara Malkoun [designer], Hicham Awad [film scholar], Maxime Hourani [artist], and many more). But I guess we were the initiators of the project, the ones that were putting in the most energy.
Mirene. Marwa’s mother helped us a lot at the beginning, she got us our first sponsor. And then our first workshop was at [web developer and designer Mansour Aziz] Mansour’s place…
Marwa. Yes, the first one was at Mansour Aziz’s and [architect, artist and activist] Ghassan Maasri’s place, it was behind the Sanayeh gardens. They had just rented the apartment and I think we were the first ones to organize something there.
Mirene. We were even considering sharing the space at some point with them. And I remember that our first workshop took place there. There was a lot of cooking done also by Marwa’s mother, to feed the participants and everything. Our family played an important role in providing support.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Carine. And when did 98Weeks get its own space?
Mirene. In 2008 or 2009. Actually, we were looking for different spaces, and I was moving to the top floor of a building in Mar Mikhael. I saw this storefront, which used to be a garage, and it looked perfect. I don’t remember how much the rent was.
Marwa. It was 300$. The condition of the grant we got was to have a space. The Foundation for Arts Initiative gave us a 10,000$ grant that covered running costs. We had found this space before getting the grant.
Nour. So it seems the project wasn’t particularly conceived from the beginning with the idea of a space. Sometimes, collectives come together, or, let’s say, cooperatives are formed with the idea of creating a space, like a physical space, not only a moral space. Did having a space change the nature of the projects?
Marwa. We didn’t plan to have a space at the beginning. We didn’t have the means and we were doing a lot of things out of our flat in Mar Mikhael, such as reading groups, among other things. At some point, after the two first workshops, we sensed that we had a community in the city, that there was something going on through these workshops, people coming together and discussing specific questions that relate to the city. This needed to continue, and it was the moment when we applied for that grant that allowed us to rent the space.
Carine. What were you registered as? Is being registered linked to the idea of becoming more “official”, or to the possibility of being eligible for financing?
Marwa. It was bureaucratic. Without being registered, we couldn’t open a bank account or receive donations or grants. Also, it’s so easy to register an NGO. At least it was. Nowadays, it is becoming more difficult.
Mirene. Going back to the space; at the beginning, it was a little unclear what the space would be for. At first, we didn’t want to have exhibitions because we didn’t want to deal with the art market, although we did have two exhibitions at the very beginning. [laughs] One of the exhibitions was by Sethareh Shehbazi, and the other was by two American artists, Peter Curry and Colin Whitaker. They had a show of flowers there, which was cute. [laughs] After that, we didn’t have shows, even though there was a demand for them. It would have been a great space for site-specific projects, but that was not really what we wanted. The space was versatile. At some point, it became a small library. I remember we also hosted the Bidoun library. We also organized an artist book fair.
Regarding our research themes, we started with the city and spatial practices. The city was our field of research. Maybe this is also why we didn’t feel the need for a specific space back then because our attention was focused on external urban space. At some point, Marwa started focusing on publications so the space hosted publication-related events, such as the Bidoun library. We hosted a small artists’ book fair with really interesting books, as well as a series of talks about magazines and publications, etc.
Marwa. From the beginning, we didn’t want to do a small gallery or a small project space where artists could come and produce their works and exhibit them. We were quite clear about that. But the moment we got the space, as Mirene said, we were approached by so many people interested in showing their work. We got a little bit derailed, thinking that we will do exhibitions and showcase works. It was a very brief moment. Then we quickly realized that what we wanted to do is actually stay on the research path, which was our main motivation and starting point.
We started with a workshop about Mar Mikhael. This was the first project we did in the space, and it was a moment where we had gotten a bit more confident and liberated ourselves from the idea of having a main artist lead the workshops (previous workshops in the ‘spatial practices’ research chapter were led by Lara Almarcegui [artist] and Cecilia Andersson [curator] as well as Francis Alÿs [artist] and Cuauhtémoc Medina [curator and art historian]). This is also when we invited Jumana Emile Abboud [artist]. We followed a peer-to-peer method of learning. We were walking together, talking to people in the neighborhood, etc. After that, the publication’s research started. We were mostly looking at historical publications from the 50s, 60s, and 70s that were published in Arabic and the role they played in the modernization of language and the creation of a so-called Pan-Arabism on an ideological level. We had this collection of poetry magazines like Shiir magazine (lent to us by [publisher and film poster collector] Abboudi Abou Jaoude) and also worked with Al Hilal Magazine. We invited people to read and intervene. That was what the following two years were about.
Mirene. I think we generated a lot of content, but we never actually published much of it. For example, even with the publication research, texts were written, and I think even translated, but we haven’t published them so far.
From 98Weeks Research / Space Project archive
Carine. I can’t help but think about what was happening in Lebanon then. I mean, you started after the 2006 war. A lot of people have mentioned how powerless that event made them feel, giving them the drive to connect with others. Also, you set up your space in Mar Mikhael just when the area was starting to get gentrified. There were also a series of political assassinations at the time. How do you position yourself within all that was happening at the time in Beirut, in the country, and maybe even in this specific street?
Marwa. Back then, the neo-liberal machine was still powerful and mostly sensed through the gentrification of neighborhoods such as Mar Mikhael, among others. There was a lot of money thrown into funding art spaces and art structures. Ford Foundation retrieved its funding from Lebanon two years after that, but it was still a moment when money was being poured in. Politically, the country was extremely divided and polarized. There wasn’t a general feeling of defeat yet, and that’s the difference between now and then. It’s also important to mention that we were quite young. We wanted to group as peers of the same age. There was a kind of generational motivation and drive.
Mirene. I wasn’t living in Lebanon in 2006 when the war happened, but when we started doing that research on the city, the war was definitely in the background. The 2006 war had a dramatic impact on the urban landscape, and in a way, the repercussions were also present in the workshops, although they were not addressed directly. Also, this period was an important one for the artistic infrastructure of the city. The Sfeir-Semler Gallery opened in 2006 and had to evacuate during the war. It was definitely a time that saw growth in terms of capital in the art sector, but also in terms of institutions. The Beirut Art Center was founded in 2008. The seeds of these institutions were being planted back then.
Marwa. It was also intentional, to not address all these political events explicitly. We were aware that we didn’t want to produce or export more images of war. We wanted to focus on specific research and give it time. Retrospectively I can say that our intention was to think about politics through the creation of a structure that would be doing things differently while thinking about horizontal research methodologies. Perhaps that was not fully articulated as such back then, but I can see now that we wanted to focus on the backstage rather than address and stage political events with capital P, or produce more narratives and counter-narratives about them. What we wanted to do was think about ways of working (together), building structures, and producing knowledge. I think that was quite intentional, I mean as a political stand.
Mira. I was wondering if, in that drive to regroup, or come together as a generation, to produce knowledge, there was any awareness of the fact that you were women. Was that part of the discourse?
Mirene. Our third research theme was feminisms. In the beginning, gender was not explicitly addressed, although it was certainly a position we were aware of. It’s interesting to think about what is articulated, or what is put into discourse, and how you become aware of certain things, although these things might have been operating in the background without us fully grasping the extent of them. At some point, Marwa suggested that we focus on feminisms as a third research theme and that became at the forefront of the research.
Mira. I remember attending one of your lectures, where you had invited the Rojava women. I thought it was an interesting moment because, in a sense, you were putting forward the idea of collectivity. The driving force was the fact that it was conducted by women. Can you tell us more about that chapter in your structure?
Marwa. When I think about it now, there was something interesting about 98Weeks because of the way it was structured. There weren’t many constraints, and it never really became an institution. We suffer now from the fact that we don’t have any traces of the things we did back then, but there is something that was good actually, a certain kind of flexibility, allowing us to adapt to the questions that would come up in the process. In fact, it was like turning the idea of an institution upside down, or inside out. The questions that are usually asked backstage, were brought up immediately to the front stage. They didn’t take a lot of time to be addressed in the form of public events. When we started thinking about feminisms, one of the main questions that we asked ourselves was how can we create feminist structures within art institutions. Our friend Sidsel Nelund [researcher] was involved in this project. And this is when we really started thinking about the form a feminist institution could take. That was one of the core interrogations in the feminisms research project, the third chapter of the 98 Weeks projects. Before that, we organised reading groups around feminism. We were already kind of nurturing ourselves with all these texts.
And then came the 2015 trash crisis leading to the protests. At this point, there were many feminist NGOs and collectives that came out and were becoming much more visible on the streets, and they formed the feminist block. I was personally involved with a few of them, and I had friends that were a part of the feminist block. That was when we started shifting away from being a structure operating only within the arts or the cultural sphere and started learning from political structures, and the way they form, organise and operate collectively. This is also when I invited Dilar Dirik [activist] and Meral Çiçek [activist and journalist] from the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement. It was in 2016, right after the protests. We did a reading group with them, and we read a text by Pelshin Tolhidan2A guerrilla fighter who was writing on the intersection between ecology and feminism based on her life in the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan that they translated.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Carine. At that time, were you both still in Beirut?
Mirene. I had already kind of halfway left because I had started my MFA in the USA, and I was away for big chunks of time. During this period, I wasn’t as present. I remember that we had a reading group on feminist sci-fi writings. At that point, we didn’t have the space anymore. We did it at Marra.tein3Marra.tein is an initiative founded by George Awde [artist] and Jared McCormick [researcher] to create a space for interdisciplinary thought and exchange in Beirut.
Marwa. And then 98Weeks moved to [filmmaker, carpenter] Ghassan Halwani’s house.
Mirene. We moved our archives there because we had lost the space by that time. I was moving away bit by bit. I remember the beginning of it, but the end is a little bit more abstract for me.
Carine. Was this the last thing that 98Weeks did? Is this how it ended?
Mirene. Well, we never ended it. We just kind of let it, you know…
Mirene. [laughs] Yes, fizzle. We still have a bank account for 98 Weeks, but the money’s gone. I think we naturally kind of transitioned to other things.
Marwa. Also, both of us left Beirut, and 98Weeks is a project strongly related to Beirut.
Mirene. At some point we wanted someone to take over, but no one wanted it. [laughs] I remember we reached out to Lara Khaldi [artist and curator].
Marwa. Yeah, we wanted to hand it over to Lara, but we also did not want to hand over a structure that didn’t have money.
Mirene. For the record, Cecilia Andersson joined the 98Weeks team. Cecilia helped facilitate the workshop with Lara Almarcegui. She then moved to Beirut because she liked it so much. She was then part of 98Weeks for a year or so. There was also Zeina Assaf [writer and digital consultant], who was a part of our staff at some point.
Nour. You were talking about that third chapter where one of the main questions was feminist structures. Did you consider yourself a feminist structure? Did you try to figure out ways of operating that were different? You just used the word “staff”. Were there people that were getting salaries? Was there a board?
Mirene. I think these are good questions. When we registered the association officially, we had to have a board, so certain people were involved on paper. I think that Samer Frangieh [writer] was the secretary on paper.
Marwa. Hatem Imam [graphic designer and artist], Karine Wehbe…
Mirene. Technically there was a board, a ghost structure that was never operative as such because most of the decisions were made between Marwa and me. I think opening the space changed the very nature of the project. Especially on the operational level because the space came with many things that needed to be taken care of. And at that point, we had an audience, so we hired someone to work on our newsletter, emails, archiving, etc. Zeina Assaf helped us with the logistics. I don’t remember how much she was paid. Not a lot…
Marwa. Zeina was basically the only one who was paid. We couldn’t afford salaries. Yasmine Chemali [conservator] was also briefly involved, as was Donna Timani [artist].
Nour. So both of you did not have salaries.
Marwa. No, because the grants we got covered running costs and not salaries.
Nour. It’s very rare to get grants that cover running costs. Generally, you get money to cover project-related expenses and not core expenses related to the space for example.
Marwa. Then we sometimes paid ourselves from the projects’ grants that we got, but very small sums…
Mirene. We also fundraised for specific projects. So certain projects received funds here and there, but it was never consistent. There wasn’t really a desire to expand into a medium size institution like Ashkal Alwan [Lebanese Association for Plastic Art] for example. We didn’t want to focus on the growth and stability of the organization. We wanted to stay small.
Nour. So do you feel there’s a bit more leeway, or “freedom” when you stay on that smaller scale?
Mirene. I think we negotiated other things. Marwa is an artist and I am a writer. I really wanted to focus on my writing. Having a small size institution allows you to make these choices. I wanted to get an MFA, and I took that path rather than staying wedded to the institution. There was 98Weeks, and there were other things as well.
Nour. Did you feel a sense of responsibility towards the community or towards certain people? In a sense that you started something and that you had a responsibility to continue it?
Mirene. I don’t know, that’s a tricky question.
Marwa. I feel like the word “responsibility” puts a lot of weight. Of course, when you start something public, you start to think about your next step, and you hesitate to terminate the whole project because it will create a void. But at the same time, there was also an impossibility to continue at that point. We stopped at a moment when there were many other structures in place. I started to feel like 98Weeks was suffocating in the city. It didn’t have enough money and it didn’t get the last grant from The Foundation for Arts Initiative. So I guess we also left at the moment when the city was developing in another direction. For example, the Sursock Museum had opened, and a lot of money had gone into repairing and renovating it. There were institutions that were already there such as the Beirut Art Center, and others that were promised like the BEMA Museum. The city was taking a different path from the one it was on when we had started.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Carine. When you think back at 98Weeks today, do you see yourself as a duo, as an initiative, as a collective? Where do you stand with regard to these definitions? Do they apply to you?
Mirene. I think we might have used the word “collective” a few times. For me, and especially when addressing funders, I saw it more as a research project, which is technically our name: 98Weeks Research Project. Concerning the idea of being a collective, I think that part of what collectives do is generate literature on themselves. That wasn’t something we did. We didn’t try to define what 98Weeks was. It was an experience driven by certain questions or interests, rather than by a desire to take a stance as a collective. Although it might have been inspired by other collectives.
Mira. Did you come across other artist collectives that had existed in Beirut in the past? Ones that might have influenced or inspired you? Was there a moment where you looked back and you found something there?
Marwa. Mirene did that publication that was mentioned in the beginning.
Mirene. Yes, it was called How to make (nice) things together. It was about the friendships around 98Weeks. I interviewed Karine Wehbe and Wadih Safieddine about Espace SD in the 1990s, which was a space created for artists in the city. I interviewed Zico [Zico house]. I also spoke with Nadine Bekdache who owns the Janine Rubeiz gallery, a space where she hosted a few talks, events, and conversations. The space was called Dar al Fan [The House of Art].
I think there also must have been a lot of publications that acted as forms of collectives, in terms of the people they brought together. One of them was called شعر [Shiir / Poetry], which is a poetry magazine founded in the late 50s. It had this sort of modernist mission. I think it was Youssef el Khal and Adonis and a group of male poets that initiated it. It was very male-oriented. [laughs]. So magazines were also a form of collectivity. But in terms of art collectives as such, I didn’t find much.
Nour. You were talking about the fact that each of you had their own work. How much did the research subjects or themes or the choices of artists you would invite relate to personal interests? How did that kind of intersect? Did it feed your work in certain ways? Was 98Weeks a project that you’re doing separately from your own work?
Marwa. I am an artist but 98Weeks is not an artwork. A lot of artists consider these structures as such, but we never really claimed it as an artwork, neither mine nor Mirene’s. We always were very clear that this is a structure. But it is not always possible to separate your interests from your research and from what you’re actually doing with your work. You somehow always bring it all into that structure. And that was quite productive in the sense that it was also a way to involve other people in the things you’re thinking about, to make the research process public. It is actually necessary because you’re feeding into 98Weeks and 98Weeks is feeding back into you. Every participant had that kind of relationship I suppose. That’s the best kind of relationship that you could have. It doesn’t make sense if you have to split yourself in two. It’s impossible, actually. All the way through, I think it was a good balance between 98Weeks and our own practices. But in the end, I remember that there was a gallerist that wanted to actually work with me, and so he suggested funding 98Weeks, as a way to work together. Of course, we didn’t accept it. I think towards the end, the imbalance started to appear.
Mirene. The research was always very close to our personal interests. I think that this is why we never really became an institution where these overlaps are frowned upon. The research was not an external interest, it was something that came directly from a desire to ask certain questions, or work with specific material. We let that desire lead the way, and we were directly implicated in the research ourselves.
Marwa. When we started 98Weeks, everyone was calling us a curatorial collective and we were disagreeing, saying that we are rather an artists-led project. And then they were calling us an artist collective, and we said that we weren’t a collective, that we were a structure. Looking back, I think that 98Weeks was all of this at the same time, and not really one specific thing. So we were using curatorial methodologies, but also borrowing ideas from collectives on organizing, building structures, etc. There were personal ways of doing things that came into the mix. So we were none of that and all of that at the same time. I like to think of 98Weeks as an organism that actually experimented with all of these things and produced its own shape and form.
Mirene. The resistance around certain definitions personally pushed me to define myself in terms of how I want to be identified. Initially, I was the curator and Marwa was the artist. We were supposed to take on these roles as cultural producers. I was ambivalent about the curatorial part. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a curator, but I was placed in that position and invited to curatorial events. Larger forces were at play. Back then, being a curator from Lebanon was somehow desired, and that created a certain pressure. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a curator. Actually, I really want to be a writer. I had to define myself in relation to all these identities, and really decide what I want to invest the most energy in. In that way, I think it was productive because it pushed me to do that for myself. I don’t reject the other categories, but I wanted something else, and this experience made me define what I wanted.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Nour. Were these things that you did that didn’t work out?
Marwa. No, nothing. Everything always worked out! [laughs]
Nour. I really want to talk about these things that don’t go as planned, especially when working with other people. It’s not always very obvious. It’s not an easy thing to do. Things get messy…
Marwa. I guess it’s always messy. It’s never so clear and clean because you are discovering along the way how to do things, discovering especially what you don’t want to do. At some point also, desires shift and you want to do something else. You’re always trying to redefine the way you’re working together and what you’re doing together, and if it actually still makes sense to do it. It is never really resolved. I guess it’s not about resolving it, but you always have to adapt the structure to match the changes. It’s all about the shifts, the renewed interest, and the renewed desire. And this is constant.
Mirene. We were at moments in our lives where a lot was at stake. It was a formative moment, a moment of definition or self-definition. And for me, that was a little bit of a struggle because I sometimes felt unclear as to what I truly wanted to do. . At the same time, I’m thankful for the context that allowed me to push myself in order to understand what it is that I really wanted. I don’t think that anything didn’t work out, things just took a certain turn given certain circumstances.
Nour. Did you always agree on the direction that you wanted to take, on the different themes? Did you disagree sometimes? How would you mitigate that, if the desires did not sync up?
Mirene. The first theme was Marwa’s idea. It was a great theme, so we were both on board. For the second theme, I wanted to focus on publications. The themes were broad enough to allow us to find our own ways and focus on different things (I focused on Shir and Marwa focused on Al Hilal). So there was negotiation, and sometimes a lot of negotiation.
Carine. I guess what’s specific about 98Weeks is that it was created during your formative years. I am part of a collective now that I am 40. So there are a lot of things behind me, which makes it somehow more difficult to question certain things I feel strongly about.
Mirene. But maybe it makes it easier because you have more tools to navigate, negotiate, or say what you want to say.
Mira. I think that there’s something exciting when you’re already on a trajectory and the collective comes in, as a common trajectory. There is something quite interesting that happens when we do this. Also, it was nice to witness both of you recollect this experience that happened a while ago now.
Mirene. Yes, even though I feel like I forgot a lot of things. Sometimes I just don’t remember.
Carine. Maybe we can have another conversation at some point if you remember other things or would like to share anything else with us. But for now, thank you for this.
From 98Weeks Research / Project Space archive
Transcribed and edited by The Camelia Committee
- 1Espace SD was a multipurpose art space in Gemmayzeh. Launched in 1998 by Wadih Safieddine [producer] and Karine Wehbe, it was managed by Sandra Dagher [curator] as of 2000 and until its closer in April 2007
- 2A guerrilla fighter who was writing on the intersection between ecology and feminism based on her life in the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
- 3Marra.tein is an initiative founded by George Awde [artist] and Jared McCormick [researcher] to create a space for interdisciplinary thought and exchange in Beirut