In their presentation 'Kriegspiel 2.0: The Immersive Image' - part of Home Works V in Beirut, Lebanon, earlier this spring - artist and writer Kodwo Eshun and academic and DJ Steve Goodman (who also goes by the name Kode9) hypnotised their audience with an account of how computer and video game-playing has been changing the way the world works. While in all likelihood most in attendance at the talk sustain a superiority towards games of this sort, their undeniable popularity suggests the importance of trying to understand the functions they fulfil. After showing a trailer for Microsoft's Project Natal, Eshun and Goodman described how new 'vibro-tactile' interfaces capable of gestural, facial and vocal recognition are pushing video games into a realm where they cease to be interactive but rather become immersive, enabling gamers with full sensory dominance.1
Eshun and Goodman, both exquisite wordsmiths, persuasively explained how 'the game-player is subjected, mechanically enslaved by addiction to algorithms', caught in cycles of 'inter-passivity and the global economies of attention and affect'.2 Using a series of US films about gaming culture to illustrate some of the ways in which such models teach people to 'learn by rules rather than facts' - and the ways in which games are becoming 'corporeal rather than cognitive' - Eshun and Goodman explained how games brought about 'personification of a routine, an instruction'. Taking their theory to an extreme, they suggested that game-playing constitutes one of the main circuitries of effective power today, and, correlatively, that power is operative as entertainment and politics as pleasure. Their bold conclusion: game-playing operates on the same effective plane as that which is inhabited by contemporary politics.
This compelling history of the present through the mass forms of video games and films also conjured a world in which people are enslaved in ecologies of obedience: a sense of learning through rules rather than through critical engagement that related closely to discussions of pedagogy elsewhere in Home Works. If Eshun and Goodman spoke of the current foreclosure of political alternatives - with radicalism as exhausted, worn out, touted by derisible characters with dreadlocks and leather jackets - one of the goals of Home Works this year was to figure out how to engender and harness criticality.
Home Works began in 2002 as 'a multidisciplinary platform for exchange on cultural practices and debates'.3 It takes place in Beirut about once every other year, organised by the formidable Christine Tohme of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, 'an organisation set up in 1994 to promote the work of artists engaged in critical art practices within the context of post-war Lebanon'.4 This fifth edition, Home Works V, comprised ten days of panels and lectures, artists' talks and projects, performances and screenings, not to mention exhibitions, spread throughout the 5,500-year-old city.5 The stated emphasis of both Ashkal Alwan and Home Works is on education.
As Martha C. Nussbaum and others have recently articulated, while the enemy of education has often been tradition, the situation of education today is complicated by the domineering role exerted by business. Increasingly there are two kinds of education: 'an education for profit-making and an education for a more inclusive kind of citizenship'.6 This is currently borne out the world over, and in the UK one need look no further than the example of the proposed closure of Middlesex University's pioneering philosophy department (now moving in part to Kingston University). This progressively urgent question about where and how people develop the ability to think critically, and about where they learn to imagine the predicament of another human being was repeatedly tackled over the course of Home Works as it flirted both in discussion and in action with radical forms of pedagogy.
Education had been foregrounded as a theme in honour of the forthcoming Home Works Academy, a 'post-under-graduate' art school that will have a base in a former wood-carving factory next to the Beirut Art Center (opened in early 2009), but which will use the city of Beirut as its campus. The establishment of the academy is an attempt to bridge the perceived current gap between what is being taught in Lebanon's degree-giving universities and what is actually being practiced - as beyond the biennial Home Works forums, Beirut is a hive of informal and innovative learning platforms led by mixtures of students, artists and professionals.
Three Home Works panels tackled the topic under the umbrella title, 'In And Out of Education… What Can We Teach Nowadays?', each bringing together prominent artists, curators and academics known for their adventures in radical pedagogies. I missed the first.
The second of these panels was mediated by the painfully eloquent artist and writer Walid Sadek. He was accompanied by superstar curator Okwui Enwezor, CAMP (Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti from the Centre for Architecture, Media and Politics in Bethlehem, Palestine) and Mahmoud Natout, an academic studying teacher-identity development in post-conflict Lebanese society.
Sadek steered the panel in thinking about 'the role an art pedagogical institution can play when set and understood within a protracted civil war'.7 He began by proposing the concept of 'post-memory', as 'memory which pendulates - swings back and forth - to make a place where layered living [i.e. in the past and future] is again possible?'8 Following, Enwezor called for the academy in Beirut to invest in social agency, name-checking Paulo Freire, Karl Jaspers and Isaiah Berlin; to bring together thought and action; and to grapple with the entanglement of education in the post civil-war induced crisis of citizenship. CAMP, who are in the process of exploring ways to formalise the programme of activities they currently run on the roof of their house in Palestine, imparted their anxiety about embarking on such a task; Natout, after a neat opening in which he paraphrased Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, 'Why children, why are you here?', summarised a range of possible pedagogical approaches working from the examples of Bertolt Brecht, Henry Giroux and Homi Bhabha.
However, for all the talk of the need for innovative models of dialogue and exchange, the set up for the panel - indeed as with all the panels, and Home Works as a whole - was largely conventional: a selection of experts using recherché vocabulary to express abstract ideas, elevated on a stage with an auditorium of others sat in the dark. When questions were invited from the floor, someone asked what school one would have had to go to before attending the Home Works Academy in order to understand what was being discussed there - a direct attack on the elevated discussion that had just played out before them. The question went unaddressed and unanswered but the audience left the auditorium abuzz and related conversations continued into the night.
The third panel on education was more practical rather than theoretical or historical. It brought together Gregory Sholette from Queens College, New York, Yazid Anani from Birzeit University, Palestine, Judi Werthein from the CIA (Center for Intelligencia in the Arts), Buenos Aires, and Nato Thompson, Chief Curator at Creative Time in New York, all of whom, in essence, spoke of art education in 'a moment when knowledge and creativity are being subsumed by the instrumentalising logic of the market'.9 Thompson firmly took charge and unabashedly weighed in, making uncomfortable observations and nigh-on accusations. He began by wondering why the audience was even at Home Works, and posited that it was in high measure correlated to the gain of social capital. While the previous panel on education had spoken notionally of radical approaches, at one point going so far as to suggest that activism can lead the way in educative terms and models, Thompson contended - and who in the audience could have possibly argued? - 'that the discussion of radical politics is far from actual radical politics'. He pleaded, 'What is an activism that accomplishes nothing?', and concluded by issuing a cutting reminder that much of the activist camaraderie indulged in by conference attendees while in Beirut was vulnerable in the face of financial capitalism, perhaps an allusion to competition for grants and various other forms of funding. Everyone seemed to leave the session enamoured of Thompson, appreciative of his attempt to shake things up and unsettle any kind of hovering consensus. Once again, the audience left fully charged, with high energy they were invited to use by artist Rabih Mroué, who, handing out pieces of chalk to the audience, asked them to (literally) hopscotch to the next event in the programme.
Stalwarts, who have helped make Home Works what it is today, were in force throughout as both speakers and audience. Many forum delegates who had 'seen it all before' resolved to steer clear of Jalal Toufic's lecture, one abdicator predicting it would be 'strenuously opaque'. 'Jalal Toufic is a thinker and a mortal to death' began his biography in the Home Works guide. The title of his lecture: 'Don't Go to Hell for the Sake of Finishing Watching the Film'. It turned out to be easy to summarise: it was about how you should protect yourself from horrible things that happen in films, because, especially when you are younger, it is hard to understand the toll these things take. However, prefaced by Matthew 5.22, 'It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell', the actual way of arriving at this conclusion was seriously complex, conjoining of concepts of jouissance; Twin Peaks; a reproblematising of Nietzsche's concept of good and evil as good and bad; and Rilke's puppet and angel, inherently 'dead' yet innocent beings between which humans exist. (This is a brief, incomplete list.) 'Zapping' between papers in his hand, books on the table in front of him, and material on his laptop, Toufic's open and unapologetic, almost frantic belief in spiritual life felt vital and contemporary in the extreme, perhaps as a result of its almost dazzling encompassing of such a myriad of popular and philosophical treaties. The most spectacular, yet discrete moment came with a visual connection he made between Matthew 18.10 ('If your eye causes you to lose your faith, tear it out and throw it away') and the logo for LG Electronics, the global television manufacturer. It is true one could effectively apply the word 'opaque' to Toufic, but, similar to the horrible images he advises one avoid, the intricacies of his thought processes are enduring: to see Toufic in action was a total highlight (as was Tony Chakar's tours through Achrafieh, the area of Beirut in which he grew up). Who cares if Toufic doesn't think in straight lines?
At times many of those who attended Home Works found it difficult or were frustrated by it, yet, across the board, the passionate and engaged conversations it engendered are testament to the need for both it, and its continuation, in whatever form it might take. While activism might be hailed as a way to help us move forward and build new political visions, we should be wary of doing away with all established modes of pedagogy, as some contributors seemed to imply: it is the ethical responsibility of all pedagogues to test boundaries and knowledge while engaging in a process of constant renewal, wherever they are working, whatever the context.10 Above all, and throughout, our goal in all endeavours should be discursive. Home Works is remarkable in many senses, not least of all the pervasive mood of generosity that extends from the fact that it is free to attend to the fact that even when someone makes a bad presentation someone in the audience will find a way to respectfully make some sense of it. That close to 500 people took time out of their schedules to embroil themselves in ideas and share their fields of research and their preoccupations with others from all over the world is a very great thing.
Eshun and Goodman's theorising on the subject is entwined with the fact that many of the technologies being used in new gaming peripheries are taken directly from actual military and warfare sensory tools. In addition, one must not forget, or underestimate, the influence of Harun Farocki's 2009 video piece Immersion in which he explores the connection between virtual reality and the military.↑
Notes from the lecture 'Kriegspiel 2.0: The Immersive Image', Kodwo Eshun and Steve Goodman, 29 April 2010, Monnot Theatre, Beirut, Lebanon.↑
The forum's five core themes were 'In And Out of Education… What Can We Teach Nowadays?', 'Where is Beirut, Ramallah, Cairo… From the Saadiyat Island?', 'Sound & Citizenry', 'The Odd Years' (the 1960s) and 'Militarism'.↑
Martha C. Nussbaum, 'Education for Profit, Education for Freedom', First annual Seymour J. Fox Memorial Lecture, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 16 December 2007 and Opening Plenary Address, Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC, 24 January 2008, p.4.↑
Quote from a handout written by Walid Sadek for 'In and Out of Education… What Can We Teach Nowadays? Part Two', 26 April 2010, Babel Theatre, Beirut, Lebanon.↑
Quote from a handout compiled by Gregory Sholette for 'In and Out of Education… What Can We Teach Nowadays? Part Three', 27 April, 2010, Metropolis Empire Sofil, Beirut, Lebanon.↑
A summary of notes made during 'In and Out of Education… What Can We Teach Nowadays? Part Two', 26 April 2010, Babel Theatre, Beirut, Lebanon.↑