Performing Place

Subject: Performance and Space
Author: Nadine Khalil

Lina Issa began her talk at LAU by expressing her fascination with the ways in which one creates an identity as a foreigner, or an expatriate in a foreign country and “how identity resonates differently.” Her video and performance work often situates itself in space and grapples with shifts of context as places of negotiation. In the Netherlands, this issue was especially key to her because she suddenly found herself as somewhat of a representative of a Lebanese visual artist, and need to grapple with the meaning of that. Issa is obsessed with “finding the relationship between inner sensorial spaces and the outside;” that is how she makes sense of herself in cities and as a citizen with many identities. “I need to access this inner space sometimes to become free from our loaded political, cultural, and social context,” she admitted.

Among the projects she participated in was a workshop where the experiment was to remain still in the city and explore it behind closed eyes so that it would be the senses only which could relate to the space. “We would stand still in front of the central station or museum, closing our eyes, and just feel the city.” This kind of movement, or lack of it, is always present in her work which, by allowing the sensorial element to dominate, add a much more human element to the bustling urban fabric that is very much part of our lives. One can slow down, take breath, and sense aspects of the city that are often routinized or go unnoticed, such as smells, movements, and sounds.
When Lina Issa was still studying and the government rejected her renewal of the residency permit, her work after that point was “conditioned by this political sense of exception,” especially since she was registered as a student. And so she decided to stay for the remaining year and a half and appeal this governmental decision. This meant that she could not go back home to Lebanon which result in a sense of urgency of not being able to return or “access certain memories and places in a country so dear to me.” Therefore, she chose someone to take her place, to enact her desire to be in two places at the same time. After conducting a casting, she chose a Spanish woman and gave her 150 pages of instruction, which proved to be very intimate. They described the smells, touch, and tastes she would experience, which were Lisa’s own sentiments, but to be mediated through her own appraisal of the city. Lisa told her who she would meet, how she would experience her surroundings, all of which were supposed to be “collected in her body, via her own subjectivity and references” and brought back to her. No pictures were allowed because the idea was how to present an embodied, situated experience, and not a visual experience. And therefore, the participant in Lisa’s project wrote a notebook of herself, in the form of a diary, but she wrote it in her native language Spanish, yet another space that Lisa could not access or was prevented from relating to. “I could not go home, even in these recreated memories.”
This performance project was entitled “where we are not,” and “it is not about anywhere in particular,” according to Lisa, “it is about the places we carry with us in our bodies.” In her narration of her memories of place, Lisa choreographed her subject’s movements by drawing her attention to the smells of Beirut, how she should be aware of the city, how to cross the street and stop the taxi in this urban environment that was now foreign to her. She did not smell the rusty rods on the Corniche the way Lisa did, nor she would have necessarily noticed the odor of the plastic covers that were table tops in the café Jamal of Tyre, “which could sometimes be more invasive than that of the sea.” Constantly grappling with this dialectic of the public, urban experience and the more private, intimate ones, Lisa posed the following questions to her audience: “How do you look for a single smell in a city? Are these smells gone while I was gone? Are we all seduced by the same smells? How do you make such sensations visible? How to you invite someone into your intimate spaces and your world when you know it will be narrated?” Lisa realized that through this performance intervention that involved sending someone else to her domestic spaces and the other places she frequented in her hometown, she was observing her own fragmentary self. “This brings with it a new experience of dislocation and disappearance in new encounters.” Another thing she realized was that by “pinching others to feel what you want them to feel, places and emotions are no longer fixed in the past, they can be shifted. We share so much as human beings that can be activated over distance beyond physical presence. But do these things or this cultural luggage, does it return when we return?”

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