Image Conscious

halil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, who began to create their vast archive of still and moving images at the end of the civil war, think of themselves as “researchers more than artists.” Their work, which includes feature films, photographs, visual art, and essays, is primarily concerned with the presentation, perception, and power of images. Remarkably, the couple has never created a work apart. Together with their two children, they divide their time between Beirut and Paris. With a feature film starring Catherine Deneuve behind them, a Swiss-edited monograph of their work due out next January, solo shows around the world, and plenty more projects in the pipeline, they met with me to discuss the state of their art.

We arrange to convene in a Gemmayze café late one morning. After somewhat frenetic phone calls warning me they may be late because things are “a little crazy at the moment,” Joana arrives (roughly) on time, a vision of natural health and youthfulness in the sweat of the midday summer sun.

We order drinks while we wait for Khalil. I begin by asking how the couple manages to maintain their multidisciplinary approach without feeling pressured to limit themselves to one medium, but Joana immediately steers the conversation towards their origins. “Khalil and I didn’t do any school…we were doing literature, I was trying to write and Khalil was a photographer. He began very young at age 11 or 12.”

When Khalil finally arrives looking focussed and slightly stressed, he responds to my question exactly the same way: a telling symmetry. The artists seem to have an all-consuming awareness of their own narrative, the image that they present to others. Not that this should surprise me, given the predominance of the image in their work.

Khalil and Joana’s work is deeply personal, with a key element of political activism. Their 1996 project Khiam was driven by their involvement in campaigns to close the titular detention centre. “The whole system is wrong,” they say, “not only the political system, but the whole way of thinking, you know, that Lebanon can only be confessional.”

The artists hope “to reinvent the whole system, to break the whole system.” How? By focusing on images created by the system, and providing alternatives. War, in their opinion, made creating images too easy, by generating images that inspire only pity and detachment in a global audience. So “we don’t do images of war, we show what war does to images,” Joana says.

Hence their archives, and their no thrills presentation of Lebanon after the 2006 war in Je Veux Voir, a film that shows Catherine Deneuve exploring the country without voyeuristic, graphic media images. Hence, also, the final scene of the artists’ best work to date, the feature film A Perfect Day (2005). Central character Malek (played by Ziad Saad), whose father was kidnapped in the war and who has just been abandoned by his lover Zeina, puts on her contact lenses while driving in an attempt to reconcile with the images she sees.

In A Perfect Day, as in much of their work, Joana and Khalil probe the latent power that lies in opposition to dominant power structures. In A Perfect Day, the protagonist suffers from fatigue caused by his sleep apnea, and refuses to grieve the loss of his father. The idea, Joana says, is to explore “what we are going to do with all the ghosts around us. We can just ignore them and say, ‘I am not interested, the war is finished, there are no ghosts.’ Then you become a zombie, like [Malek]. Or you say, ‘I want to become like the ghost,’ and you accept to be haunted, like his mother.”

Joana replies humbly throughout the interview: “I search,” “I’m not a person who knows a lot,” “you have to unlearn.” Both artists repeat their wish to avoid definitions almost to a fault. Joana asserts her determination to avoid being a “prisoner of my identity.” She is happy to be a part of a postwar Lebanese art movement concerned with the image and archiving (together with artists such as Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Lamia Joreige) but does not wish to be defined as an Arab artist.

Khalil and Joana’s ideas are wide in scope and delicately formed, perfectly translated in beautiful pieces like Lasting Images (2003), for which they printed a previously undeveloped film that belonged to Khalil’s uncle, who was abducted in 1985. Though the long latent images were badly damaged, ghostly figures remained.

Unfortunately, in much of the artists’ work – Je Veux Voir especially – the depth of their thought does not come through. The contextual background prevents audiences from appreciating the piece in the moment. The ideas are more interesting than the execution, so that the work lacks heart.

Throughout the interview, a steady stream of friends enters the café, warmly greeting Khalil and Joana, whose phones ring a couple of times a minute.  Despite the chaos, the pair never speak over each other: they finish each other’s sentences waiting patiently for their partner to speak. Though they often argue and have divergent ideas, the artists never plan to work apart. “Everything is a collaboration,” says Joana.

Although they never mention their children in their work, the birth of their first child changed everything. Joana explains: “We work on images and I was making my own images inside, something was happening that [Khalil] could not share, and we had to find a way to have a dialogue.” She compared the experience to their collaborative work: “you have something in your mind, you know exactly what the shape of the work is, and you have to find a way to communicate to the other person.”

This ability to be “very close to your ideas and very open to the idea of the other” underlies the couple’s artistic process as well as their relationship. The practical constraints, budgetary and otherwise, that come with being Lebanese filmmakers generally oblige them to film Beirut life as it, without professional actors, fixed scripts or sets.

Yet their constraints seem inextricable from their artistic aims. Joana explains that they did not give Ziad Saad a script in A Perfect Day because they did not want to overburden the nonprofessional actor. In the same breath, she says she likes the idea that the actors “don’t know what’s going to happen to them after or before.” By making a virtue out of their obstacles, Khalil and Joana endow their work with palpable openness and freedom.

The couple intends to remain staunchly anti-commercial. “I cannot change my way of working,” says Joana. “Even if they cannot sell the work, I don’t care.” The artists were not represented until 2006, and still have no gallery in Lebanon. All the same, Khalil notes around 15 international solo shows last year alone – though again, none in Lebanon. Plans are underway for an exhibition in Beirut in the coming months.

Khalil and Joana’s time is currently occupied by an ambitious project entitled Lebanese Rocket Society, which documents a space project at the Armenian University of Beirut in the 1960s. A professor started making rockets (named Cedars 1, 2, 3, and so on) with his students. The artists found over 100 hours of archival footage, which inspired what they call a “creative documentary,” as well as writings and installations. They presented a sculpture of the rocket at this year’s Sharjah Biennale.

It is not until the very end of our conversation that Khalil and Joana finally answer my initial question about their multidisciplinary approach. Perhaps they need to be together to answer questions fully. “There is always so much connection between our films and our installations, our writings – you go to find something and you find something else.”

Another tousled 30-something-year-old approaches our table, and much scraping of chairs and kissing of cheeks ensue. I say my goodbyes and walk away to the sound of Joana’s mobile phone ringing once again.