Challenge and Care: An Interview with Tania El Khoury by Monica Uszerowicz

Two current installations share their stories and vulnerability. 

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Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak, 2017, Under The Radar Festival, New York. Photo by the artist.

In Tania El Khoury’s immersive installation and theater piece Gardens Speak, 2014, audience members put on raincoats and enter a cemetery where they are given a card written with an Arabic name. Matching it to a tombstone, they lie in soft graves of dirt, ear to the ground, and listen to a story whispered from beneath the soil, told by the dead themselves. If they wish, they can leave a note in response, folded and buried.

These narratives are reconstructed from the families and friends of the deceased, all of whom were dissidents of President Assad who were killed during the uprising in Syria and buried in home or community gardens. Syrian cemeteries are often too full, and large funerals became potential regime targets, putting grieving families at risk. Gardens Speak was developed in 2014, a response to the struggle against Assad’s dictatorship and the collaborative, protective relationship between the living and the dead. Piecing these histories together, El Khoury renders physical the idea that the ground beneath our feet contains multitudinous, literal lives.

Born in Lebanon, El Khoury is based between London and Beirut, where she cofounded the performance collaborative Dictaphone Group. During this year’s Miami Art Week at the Fillmore Miami Beach, and as presented by MDC Live Arts, she will share Gardens Speak and As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, 2017, another participatory project. Here, audience members allow their arms to be drawn upon by El Khoury’s collaborator, Basel Zaraa, who remains unseen behind a wall. I understand listening and touching as their own kind of dissidence, as both art form and intentional practice. Horror and confusion on a mass scale are heartbreaking, then numbing; it is easier to understand sociopolitical upheaval when you are connected, heart-to-heart, to another story.

— Monica Uszerowicz

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Tania El Khoury, As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, 2017, In Between Times Festival, Bristol. Photo by the artist. 

Monica Uszerowicz You developed Gardens Speak in 2014. Americans have the forced context of both Trump and new refugee crises through which to view seemingly everything. How has the project’s meaning grown for you since its original impetus, if at all?

Tania El Khoury I see Gardens Speak in the political context of Syria rather than the American context. What the piece does now, almost four years later, is remind us that what we perceive as a “war” in Syria started as a legitimate and popular uprising against a four-decade-long dictatorship. It also reminds us of the root of the displacement of Syrians, which we’ve been witnessing in the form of large numbers of refugees. The stories in Gardens Speak speak volumes about the responsibility of the Syrian regime in turning a peaceful uprising into a violent war, and in displacing people locally and internationally.

In relation to Trump’s era in the United States, I’ve noticed that the American audience has recently made the link between Gardens Speak and their country’s domestic and foreign politics. If I wanted to guess, I’d say that the link is being made because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban that included Syrians and because the stories in Gardens Speak deal with living under an authoritarian and untrustworthy regime, which some Americans may relate to at the moment.

MU You’ve explained that when Syrian activists were killed during the uprising, funerals became targets. Without romanticizing something that’s done out of necessity, the gesture of burying the dead in domestic gardens is painfully poetic. 

TEK It’s poetic in the sense that it territories one’s pain and loss. This is particularly meaningful in the context of mass displacement, in which people are forced to flee their homes and lands. Burying a loved one in a family’s home would forever change that family’s relationship to the land and place of burial. The garden burials happened for various reasons. In some cases, it was out of necessity because local cemeteries were full or there was shelling or snipers on the way. In other cases, the garden burials took place to protect the dead from the Syrian regime’s intrusion on the burial itself, and in the narrative related to the victims’ stories and their death. At the beginning of the uprising, funerals of the first martyrs were a space to show solidarity and to take sides. That is why often these funerals turned into angry protests against the regime. And that is why the regime often targeted those funerals, inflicting more death on the mourned.

MU How did you source the stories, and in turn how did you imagine the setup of the installation? It’s not the first time you’ve had participants literally lie in repose.

TEK I did a series of interviews both in London and in Beirut, then worked with a Syrian writer and activist, Keenana Issa, on the research. She led the process of setting up interviews inside of Syria through phone and Skype conversations. Together we chose the stories we had more information about and that could be turned into texts. The main source of the stories were oral histories, but we also used recorded footage from the deceased, writings, and other material left by them. The setup of the installation was conceived early on in the idea. I usually come up with an idea that includes the art form early on in the process. When I heard about the garden burials, I had an image that wherever we are in the world, if we press our ear to the ground, we can hear stories buried there.

I never thought about the idea of repose of the audience as a pattern, but maybe I should. Lying down is certainly calming and facilitates immersion in the space and content. Lying down is also a vulnerable position; it demands trust. I’m interested in situations that are familiar and caring but also uneasy; I try to design audience experiences that are both caring and challenging. The politics of the audience need to be challenged in an ethical experience of mutual care.

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Tania El Khoury, As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, 2017. Photo by the artist.

MU In Gardens Speak and As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, audio is transmitted intimately. I like the idea of utilizing sound to create a form of empathy—intentional listening as something radical.

TEK I like the idea of intentional radical listening. I also think of it as ceremonial, the kind of listening that cannot happen in a rush or just anywhere. The listening would need to be earned somehow. In the context of Gardens Speak, you need to literally dirty your hands in order to get to the sound source. I feel that the space where the listening takes place is important. It creates an atmosphere where one listens not only with the ears, but with the whole body.

MU You explore the occupation of spaces both politically and interpersonally. I’m thinking of Fuzzy, 2009, in which heartache becomes performative and then—in its ability to connect people—more real. Can vulnerability or tenderness be forms of activism?

TEK Yes! I think of shared vulnerability with the audience as crucial to achieving interactivity. I see, in audience interactivity, the ethical and political potential of live art. It’s particularly important to me as an artist not to expect unconditional interactivity from audience. Artists need to be ready to share their own vulnerability in return. Care becomes a shared responsibility with everyone involved in the piece. That said—and as I mentioned before, and as many feminists have taught us—care doesn’t mean that we do not challenge each other’s politics.

MU As Far As My Fingertips Take Me deals with this same form of sharing and, again, vulnerability. Participants can’t see who’s touching their arm.

TEK Basel Zaraa and I first joked about the need for Westerners to feel a refugee. The symbolism in the piece is quite obvious: a fake wall, two sides, fingertips, boats, a line of refugees. Many things inspired the piece, especially the Dublin regulation that forces refugees to stay where their fingertips were first recorded in Europe, regardless of their life plans or preferences. It was also a response to the recent interest of the art world in refugee art, as if it’s a recent discovery. Basel tells a different story: he did not just become a refugee; he was born one. The audience and performer share touch and hopefully trust.

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Portrait of Tania El Khoury. Photo by Ibrahim Fakhri. 

MU Can you tell me about your work with Dictaphone Group, and how it addresses some of these other ideas?

TEK Dictaphone Group is a project specific to Lebanon, born out of our frustration with the country’s lack of public spaces and the lack of people’s agency in deciding the fate of our cities. It’s a collaboration between myself and Abir Saksouk-Sasso, an architect and urban researcher. Most of our projects are site-specific performances based on urban research. What Dictaphone Group taught me is that it’s not enough to create art that has political views; it’s necessary that this art contributes to the already existing discussion on the subject and produces knowledges that can be used by other people, and that it ends up having a life of its own.

Gardens Speak and As Far As My Fingertips Take Me are on view December 6–9 at the Fillmore Miami Beach. Purchase tickets for both through MDC Live Arts, part of Miami-Dade College, here and here.

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL. She’s contributed work to Hyperallergic, Vice, The Miami Rail, and Avidly, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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