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On Rooftops and Under the Ground

Rooftops ground
Assistant Professor Hiba Bou Akar, director of the Post-Conflict Cities Lab at Columbia GSAPP, in collaboration with artist and scholar Mohamad Hafeda (Leeds Beckett University) and Temporary Art Platform (TAP) have launched a program of five artists’ interventions in Beirut.
Press Release
June 26, 2023

On Rooftops and Under the Ground (Fawqa, Ta7ta) delves into the urban conditions of Beirut and the infrastructural challenges the city has confronted in times of crisis. Conflicts have emerged over the city’s built environment, aggravated by the near disappearance of electric power, the flooding of sewage pipelines, and the cessation of garbage collection, which has resulted in streets filled with waste. These urban struggles have unfolded amid a series of broader crises, including an economic collapse accompanied by widespread poverty, a port explosion, a popular uprising, and a pandemic. In response to these circumstances, five artists were invited to create urban interventions that explore Beirut’s rooftops, buildings, and infrastructure, reflecting on the various episodes of violence that have transformed the city’s physical surroundings and its social fabrics.

In July 2023, the five artists’ interventions will be installed in the Ain El Mraiseh neighborhood in Ras Beirut. Ain El Mraiseh and its sea promenade represent a sanctuary for the city’s residents. However, the sea the neighborhood and Beirut overlook also serves as the dumping ground for the city’s sewage, and has acted as a shock absorber during the August 4th port explosion. By siting these interventions in Ain El Mraiseh, the project poses a series of provocative questions to individuals and the community at large, urging us to closely contemplate the urban conditions of the city, looking beyond mere surface appearances, and to confront our troubled relationship with the land, water, and sea.

Each artist has identified, investigated, and responded to a threshold, border, or contested space. These sites include the balconies of buildings inhabited by impoverished migrant families from North Lebanon (Akkar), the sonic environment of WhatsApp groups whose users are attempting to resolve conflicts over the placement of solar panels on the shared rooftops of apartment buildings, the unseen biomedical world of the infrastructure that transports the city’s sewage to the sea, sunken coastlines and disputed maritime zones along the Lebanese coast, and the contentious wells and aquifers on the southern national border of Lebanon. The five artists engage with or repurpose existing structures in Ain El Mraiseh, such as advertising billboards rendered inactive due to electricity shortages, television screens in neighborhood cafes, leftover spaces between buildings, and the interiors of residential and commercial structures. Through sound, sculptures, moving images, calligraphy, poems, and fiction, the five projects transcend the sectarian discourse that often dominates Beirut. Instead, they offer a nuanced exploration of the institutional collapses and resulting atrocities that have profoundly impacted Lebanon’s environmental, economic, social, and security realms. Collectively, these five interventions weave a multi-dimensional and multi-modal journey that cuts through the city’s surfaces and enclosures, exposing the spaces between Beirut’s rooftops and underground territories. They encourage Beirut residents to reflect on our shared built environment, extending the thresholds of our perception so that we might comprehend how urban space is produced in a city engulfed by multiple crises. As the interventions begin to illuminate the boundaries that separate us from the built and natural environments, and thus from our past, they challenge us to more actively engage with our present and to envision alternative futures.

The project was initiated by Hiba Bou Akar, director of Columbia University’s Post-Conflict Cities Lab, in collaboration with artist and scholar Mohamad Hafeda (Leeds Beckett University) and Temporary Art Platform (TAP). Over the past year, this initiative has fostered a network of creative individuals, including artists, curators, scholars, and writers, who have come together, both virtually and in person, to support one another in the development of these five interventions. The project has received funding through a Ford Foundation grant awarded to Hiba Bou Akar for her work on “Urban Research and Practice in Post-Conflict Settings in the Middle East.”