Founded by artists Ali Karimi and Camille Zakharia in 2017, Photos A La Chair, emerged from an aim to engage attendees to a local gallery’s annual art show. What initially became a discussion on ways in which to “activate the installation”, rather quickly developed into what mechanisms would be best suited to affectively simulate the audience with their installation. Artists, furniture designers, photographers, in what ways can these practitioners bring about an immersive experience that in addition, utilizing and engages the location as the subject; thus the initiative became what it is today. Seven seasons and counting, the Bahraini natives have no plans on slowing down. The initiative has since served the community, as a cultural hub, promoting collaboration and bringing art to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise familiarise themselves outside of white walls.
In a landscape where art is unanimously institutional, Bahrain’s contemporary art scene, appears a departure from quaint notions of fine art, yet, harks back to archival practices of mapping and documentation that is necessary to truly understanding a subject’s context.
What were your motivations?
Ali Karimi and Camille Zakharia: The event acts almost as an incubator for different public spaces – activating them, experimenting and bringing people to places they would rarely go otherwise. The cross-pollination of communities, artists, is a low-stakes but interesting way of cutting across various social groups and also dismantling stereotypes about various places/spaces in the country. We realized how rarely as artists/architects or anyone in the creative disciplines in the Gulf we get to test out ideas in public, the aspiration of showing work in a formal setting is the dominant preoccupation. So when we named the event and decided to do it as a one-off, neither of us took the event seriously, it was purely speculative; but that allowed it to inhabit a space that was also perhaps more productive – because there was no aim other than to see what could be interesting and to have a conversation on art occur outside the framework of any governmental or professional setting. We think that for everyone involved this may have been a welcome change.
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"Bahrain still feels isolated in the sense that people here work with the idea of only Bahrain as their project/audience. For some artists this is limiting, but for others and for ourselves we enjoy the idea of producing work in a context that is not entirely global. It allows us to operate without needing to produce work for a global market."
Could you explain the practice of developing a series?
A&C:The planning for an event usually starts a month or so beforehand, we get coffee or have breakfast with the artist and speak about their practice: what public art means to them, and places they find interesting. These are perhaps as fulfilling as the event itself, as it usually is a great insight into an artist’s work as well as how they perceive their ‘audience’/context. There is a healthy amount of debate as well, which is productive.
One thing we have been thinking about is the role of archival practice, particularly as it plays out in both research-based artwork globally and in history-steeped work regionally. We see the project in some ways as an archive of the present, it is an index of contemporary artists, spaces, and communal groupings in Bahrain. We don’t necessarily set out to make it an archival project, but we go about documenting the event through a standardized set of products: a book printed after each event, the same structure of poster, similar composition of the image; maintaining consistency for the sake of having a legible archival format. It’s too early to tell but we hope this helps mark the current moment in time and in the spatial history of the country for posterity.
So, how do you decide who would be appropriate and fitting to your cause?
Each event has different contributors. So far we’ve collaborated with seven artists of various backgrounds (painters, photographers, documentary makers), and a few community organizations. The decision usually is as simple as someone reaching out to us or us wanting to work with someone new – it is completely casual. Some artists have a project or site in mind that they’ve always wanted to be able to engage, others want to experiment and see what reaction the work might register. It is important to establish different measures of success for the parties involved. For us the measure is always in flux, but for an artist it might be an engagement with the work, for the furniture designers it is testing out furniture in a public setting, for a community organization it might be engaging the local community in an area. The nature of the event and its different contributors means success is constantly being redefined, this makes it interesting but it also means finding new ways to fail. Each space, artist, community is different so some events have a huge turnout but quicker interactions with the artwork, others have a smaller crowd but people might stay longer and engage the artwork more actively. Having these different measures also mean that there is no inappropriate collaborator, as everyone brings something different to the public setting.
Could you explain how the Art coming out of the UAE fairs cross-continentally? Is Bahrain accommodating to the contemporary Art ?
A&C: Having the UAE nearby has done a lot for the art community in the Gulf. The presence of the Sharjah Biennial, Art Dubai, Art Jameel, Barjeel and others have done a lot for bringing the art world to the Gulf and connecting it to the global art market. One of the things that has been interesting about being in Bahrain however is that it still retains this sense of a world before the flattening of all geographic difference. Bahrain still feels isolated in the sense that people here work with the idea of only Bahrain as their project/audience. For some artists this is limiting, but for others and for ourselves we enjoy the idea of producing work in a context that is not entirely global. It allows us to operate without needing to produce work for a global market. For those who enjoy that way of working, being in Bahrain means that you’re able to produce work that is specific to a context: working in a world in which difference, idiosyncrasy, and particularity still exist; something we find to be an important complement to Dubai. Show in Dubai, but work in Bahrain.
As practitioners how do political implication affect your initiative?
A&C: Photos A La Chair is an apolitical event, attracting people from different backgrounds and walks of life, to be present within an artistic environment for a specific duration of time. There is a political dimension to Photos A La Chair, in the sense that it stakes a claim for public space/public art in a time when politics increasingly separate the spatial and social dynamics of the region. The act of forming a community around the habitation of space, and having that be open and inclusive is a much needed form of intervention.
What’s next for Photos A La Chair?
A&C: We’ve wanted to collaborate with some charities (we did for the second event and would like to do it again), and also wanting to try out a few large scale ideas so there is room for experimentation with the event. Down the line we would also like to move towards enabling more of our collaborators’ unrealized personal projects. Our 6th event saw artist Ghada Khunji record a performance piece which was done over the course of the 3 hour session. She had been wanting to organize it for some time and it made for a really unique session. So we would like to move in the direction of enabling projects and more specific interventions.
Would there be a way of people globally experiencing your initiative in the future?
A&C: We have spoken about doing a one-off Photos A La Chair in Dubai, Beirut or Saudi Arabia with artists there. Perhaps we would try that once or twice and see if it makes sense as a direction but for now we’ll say just come visit Bahrain!