Nora Razian, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Ghassan Maasri (Batroun Projects) in conversation with Marta Bogdańska.

It was a hot and humid day in the end of 2011 when I was invited to join a group of artists visiting a space called BATROUN PROJECTS. The building itself is a three-floor 800 m2 villa. Located between the capital and second biggest city in Lebanon, Tripoli, Batroun is a small coastal town, with beautiful old buildings, Phoenician Wall and some nice beaches. After a day of talks, visiting the space and swimming in the sea (which is literally just outside the door!),I sat down with Nora Razian, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Ghassan Maasri, three (out of four, there is also Gressy Kossaify) persons responsible for the project. Sipping strong Arabic coffee we discussed the idea of the project, which has residency programme at its core.


Marta Bogdańska: I want to ask you about the beginnings of Batroun Projects: how did you come up with the idea of the project and how did you find the space?

Nora Razian: We got hold of the space (in Batroun), which is owned by a company that is developing land around here and is having problems with pursuing their project. We made an agreement with them: to be able to use this house,which has been empty for the last 30 years. It was built in the ‘80s but it was never finished. We made a lease agreement to use it, in which they are sort of donating the lease so it is for free. We are fixing the house up.


Marta: How did the whole idea develop?

Nora: We started thinking about it a year ago, I got a hold of the house more than a year ago, I don’t remember when exactly. But we started working together collaboratively for the house, how it should be etc., in January 2011. It had been sort of informal conversations, email exchanges, and just figuring out how it might work and the general idea behind it. January is when it really started as a group with an identity.


Marta: What is the working model for you as a group? Is it a collective?

Nora: Yeah, it is the only way. We like it like this, we want it to be inclusive.

Marta: Is it an “open collective”?

Ghassan Maasri: Well, what do you mean by open collective? That anybody could join?

Nora: I mean we have to work with people who have similar interests, similar ideas…

Ghassan: It is all happening through conversations. This is what happened with Gressy - she is an architect and basically she was one of the people who passed by this place when we had a certain event going on, she liked the project, she couldn’t really understand what we were doing in the beginning but then she got excited about it and she is helping us out in terms of architecture, designing things. With time this kind of collaboration happens.

Nora: It is more like an organic approach that we are taking, because we want people to feel it. I think you really have to fall in love with the project because we all are working in our spare time so in a way it is that you really believe in what you are doing that you can start participating and also it involves your interests as well.


Marta: I want to ask you about the residency programme: why was it so important for you – it is going to be a main part of your activities? Why do it here, in Batroun?

Nora: Because of the nature of the space and its location: outside of the city. It is a large space so it needs a sort of constant inhabitation. It will be an event-based space. In the beginning we decided that we are not interested in a typical exhibition space, which would not even really work in this context – you also need to respond to your context specifically – and we are more interested in exploring processes and ideas,and sort of multidisciplinary projects, and providing a space where artists can come in for longer period of time so there is a sustainable relationship, which was really lacking. There is not really a place where you can do that in Lebanon. Our idea is also to have a sort of curated residency, so not the one where anyone can come and stay. The idea is that we develop the space: our curatorial programme will be through residencies and artists’ projects etc.


Marta: You told me also about the format of an “open call” – is this something you want to incorporate as well?

Ghassan: We want to have the space that operates as one (as an idea) which also hosts people,who are outside of the curated programmes. They will have to submit applications.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: There is going to be three bedrooms when we will develop the space. These will become the residency spaces. The idea so far is to have each room devoted to a different project so there is an overlap of people being here at the same time. One of the rooms will always be dedicated to open call for self-funded residencies. We will have a focus on Lebanese artists simply because it is self-funded.


Marta: And you would like the other two residencies to be funded in a way that the artist comes and has everything provided?

Ghassan: It would happen through our collaborations. Through them we would also have to generate income or fundraise money.


Marta: It seems you are very much aware of what is happening in Lebanon and you are inside the artistic network?

Ghassan: We have to be. It is in our interest also. We are not doing it for the space only. I mean I have been here … forever!

Nora: Since 1945!

Ghassan: Nora has been on and off here, Lawrence too, so ..

Nora: We are in the network as well.

Lawrence: It is a good point because we are not moving outside of the scene. It is the opposite, we want to be part of it, we want to build the networks, we want to take part in building the scene if you like rather than sort of move away from it. What we feel we can offer is a venue outside of Beirut to compliment some of the projects or programmes of the institutions and galleries,and project spaces inside Beirut.  For example there was a band playing in Beirut called Vialka,a French band, and they will also have a concert here. It starts to be a sort of complimentary programming as well.


Marta: Are you planning to produce work with artists who come here on a residency? Will it be a production residency or process based?

Nora: It depends on their work. We are open but we are not planning to have a finished artwork after each residency. However, our idea for this space is to create events for people to participate,therefore the residents will also be involved in that. The idea is that whoever comes at least has a practice that is based around this kind of things so either they would do a workshop or an event, or they are interested in collaborating or researching. There is an idea of creating a dynamic around the space. We are not really interested at the moment in someone who just comes and sort of closes down to do their own work.


Marta: What kind of residency projects you have in mind?

Lawrence: We have three partnerships with curated residencies in the pipeline because we are not planning anything until we can see at least some of the grants that we have applied for to make the space inhabitable. But we have three different projects and once we are more secure financially we will start inviting artists on the curated residencies. These projects exist as partnerships. First one is for the radio residency in collaboration with Wyspa Institute in Gdansk. It fits in the context of Wyspa’s reanimation of the close circuit radio system that was used in the shipyard and is famous because of the Solidarity movement and the trade union. We spoke how we could make it into a residency program, where artists who are interested in radio and sound practice, and who were interested in researching the radiophonic history of Lebanon,could come here and work on a project based on that. In line with this project there will also be a shared online radio platform between us and Wyspa, which the artists going there and coming to us to do residencies,could use as kind of audio platform to share works. It is connected to desire to promote the audio and sound based practices that are emerging here in the Middle East, which seems to be quite a lot at the moment. Some of the works are quite interesting and it is nice to engage with it. There is already a platform called Irtijal, which already established itself as a platform for experimental music for artists.


Marta: Do you already know what artists you would like to invite?

Ghassan: It is too early to speak of that.

Lawrence: Before all the specifics come out we need to secure some things. The projects are developed far in but without the specifics of knowing when the space will be inhabitable we can’t name anyone. Obviously we have some people in mind because we approached them to produce the Juke Box, which is one of the first parts of launching of the project. It was done in collaboration with Wyspa. We had an open call for artists to begin this kind of online sound platform, for artists that we invited or Wyspa invited to present their audio works as part of juke box that we would have, and Wyspa would have. Basically at any kind of event we would have the presence of this juke box, which fills the audio environment the same way the juke box would. We had contributions from a lot of artists from here, from London, from Poland, from Palestine. It was a nice way to get things started. This is online at the moment. It also includes a piece that artist Seth Rayaz produced here in the space: he was visiting from London and he made a composition of field recordings in Batroun space itself in its state of construction, with charms of deep drops and wells.


Nora: Our second project is the playwright residency. It is in collaboration with Masrah Ensemble. The idea is to invite emerging playwright, who would produce a play in the space, write it while they are in Batroun and also be mentored by a regional playwright, who would come twice during a three-month residency. The idea was to have open events during this residency, where there would be trial performances, readings etc. to involve people in more collaborative way.

Nora: The third residency is in collaboration with 98weeks Research Project, who is developing also the library with us here in Batroun Projects. The library is based on a sort of everyday list that people can submit, anyone can submit.


Marta: How will you get the books for the library?

Nora: Well, most probably we will have to have them donated.

Lawrence: There is a library in New York called Reanimation Library, which has been really influential for us. They have a library based around a no longer urgent knowledge; it is a lot of books that are scientific but kind of out of date. They are all gathered on a kind of image-focused potential, so it is a resource for visual artists. Extinct knowledge then becomes a source of images or whatever. And that is of a quite nice, cheap and easy way to have it, for artists to work with. And it is in line with being a bit outside of the city.


Marta: What about the local community? Do you want the artists to work with it?

Nora: We definitely want to encourage that just because in the beginning you really want to be part of your neighbourhood and part of the community.

Ghassan: I mean a lot of the works that are done in Beirut are about researching Beirut. Since we have started this project we met so many people that actually live around Batroun, that go back and forth to Beirut, they work in Beirut but then their house is here. This area is not really researched in terms of what kind of material it has, what it can offer etc. And this would be sort of looked at in a way.

Nora: It is not only research. It is not just looking at, it is also working with. It is about the idea of how do you work with people.

Lawrence: And not on educational level. We don’t want to be here to educate anyone. But also just because we are here, we are part of the community, we don’t want to be this island away from everything. It is a shame that Gressy is not here, another person we are working with, because she is from this area and she knows a lot of people here, she has got a lot of people interested. The local attention is growing. We hope that what will encourage people is the outdoor cinema we are doing every second Saturday, a sort of fortnight films.

Nora: We really want to create different levels for people to access what we are doing. Cinema is sort of easy, low level of commitment; you just come, watch a film. Then we will have different ways for people to get involved, for example the reading residency: over a long weekend people could come and stay reading.


Marta: How will you fund the space, the maintaining of the space?

Nora: We don’t have to pay the rent, which is great really. The only capital we have at the moment is space in a brilliant location. So we want to use the space: one of the ways to do it is to approach someone to rent out and develop a small part of the house into a café that would create income from the rent and help sustain the space. Upstairs we want to have workspaces, parts of which will be for the residents but other will be rented out. People will be able to rent studio space. We also have an idea to rent the space out for parties or different things. On the rooftop we want to have a bar belonging to the café.

Marta: And you have access to the beach for free! Amazing!

Nora: The space offers a lot of potential.

Lawrence: And it has already been attractive to some private rentals.

Ghassan: Somebody asked for a wedding in April.

Marta: Are you going to do things like this?

Nora: If it is far enough from our programming then yes, I think we can do it.

Ghassan: It also brings in people we do not expect here. This is a bonus.

Nora: A lot of places do it.

Ghassan: One gallery I saw in New York had a wedding inside. There were very expensive paintings hanging and still a wedding was going on. We crushed in because it was a gallery. The atmosphere was amazing. We will not do it all the time of course.


Marta: Do you want to invite artists who will help you develop the space itself?

Nora: Yes, it was the idea, have designers, architects, people to help build something. We want to explore this.


Marta: You are planning to open in spring 2012, and have the first residency hopefully?

Nora: Yes.


Marta: There are not that many artists-in-residency programs in Lebanon? Why?

Nora: It is really expensive.

Ghassan: It used to happen very naturally in the beginning, like artists from Europe, Iraq would come and live in Lebanon, all these exchanges were happening. I guess the same happened in Europe at a certain moment. Right now everything depends on funding, and usually funding comes more for Lebanese artists to go abroad or produce work elsewhere…

Ghassan: What I did with AIWA was to have a short-term residency but then the number of artists was quite big and people would produce work here. That was in collaboration with Triangle Network, who helped with the fundraising. It is difficult to get money here but I managed to have neighbours help, municipality was involved and stuff like that. At the time we did AIWA it was really the only residency to produce work.

Nora: I think that there is no clear understanding of the value of residency programs. The way the art scene developed was more focused on the need to develop our institutions, spaces etc. There was no idea of what value of a residency could be. I think it is changing. And this is the way to get more exchanges of ideas.

Ghassan: But it is also not only to get people from abroad, it is about giving somebody from Beirut a space to work. This is important too. And it doesn’t exist so much in Lebanon.

Lawrence: As Nora said you feel it is changing. It looks as there is going to be more and more of this sort of projects, which is good. People are starting to change the way they think about art.

Nora: I think it is a more general change: artistic practice is going more into research, participation etc. It is not about studio practice so much anymore. It is more about the process and the ideas.

Lawrence: We see the value in residencies also beyond visual arts, it is nice to use the model that exists in visual arts and expand it to other disciplines like playwriting. It isn’t really that common for a playwright to have a residency.


Marta: What are your future plans concerning Batroun Projects?

Nora: We are not interested in setting up an institution. We want to have the space for five years. We all do different things and in general we are not into establishing something very long term. We are interested in what we can create in these five years and push the boundaries because once you are aware that you want to create an institution you need to think of a strategy etc. We can have the extra freedom to experiment because we are not concerned about how to keep this space going for the next ten years.

Lawrence: We are also in the frames of the ruins – in a country like Lebanon where you are surrounded by ruins we were interested in seeing what we can do with it. It is not like we want to finish the space and present it – we are inviting people to do things already now, in this state. It is a bit of anti-professional approach to working. We don’t want this to be a job, we want to have fun. It makes it easier to collaborate.