We Put the Tape Recorder on and Thought about the Sea: A Studio Visit with Karine Wehbé

By Ella Parry-Davies

Karine Wehbé's studio in Gemmayze, Beirut, is about 1.5 km from the coast. To get from the studio to the sea over the shortest distance, you walk toward the Charles Helou motorway and pass under it, alongside the upper level of the Charles Helou bus station. You follow the flyover as it passes over the second, parallel motorway and then curls down to the right to join it. When you reach the next level down, tolerating the fumes and beeping cars, you walk next to the traffic to the left to arrive at a wide green gate with two armed security guards. One tells you that this is a port and flatly refuses entry; the other asks if you have any free time so that he can take you to the beach in his car.

Figure 1. Film still from A Studio Visit with Karine Wehbé, by Ella Parry-Davies (2019).

Alternatively, you can take a No. 15 bus to a spot on the corniche on the other side of the city; but swimming there, you are at risk of pollution caused by untreated waste tipped into the sea.1 If you want to swim safely and to avoid paying for access to the sea via a private resort, you have to get out of Beirut altogether. You could take a bus 35-km north on the coastal road to the public beach at Jbeil, for example, or 85-km south to Sour. There you can finally swim in the sparkling Mediterranean for free, and watch the sunset in parallel as you drive home along the highway.

In my essay for Theatre Journal's December 2019 special issue on water (71.4), I discuss two performative representations of the sea situated in coastal, highly migratory, and formerly colonized nations: Singapore and Lebanon. Its title, "The Sea Is Not a Highway: Performing Maritime Histories in the Not-Quite-Global City," is a provocation in response to a speech given by the then foreign minister of Singapore, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, in 1972. Likely coining the term "global city," in this speech Rajaratnam defines the island city-state of Singapore through its rapid and frictionless connections to other global cities, claiming that "the sea is all highway."2

That Rajaratnam would purport to have figuratively tarmacked the ocean at the very moment the term "global city" was born, I argue, indicates both the importance of the sea to the making of a global city, and the ways in which the very rhetoric of the global would seek to deny the sea's materiality. We might identify a similar discourse at work in the postwar reconstruction of the port and coastal Beirut in the 1990s, overseen by then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who in 1996 reportedly promised to transform Lebanon into "the Singapore of the Middle East."3

The performances I discuss in the essay—Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995) and Karine Wehbé's Tabarja Beach project (2008–18)—restore the sea's embodied and material histories to cities that are both not-quite and more-than "global" in this sense of the term, insisting on more textured transcultural and postcolonial experiences. I propose that these performances pinpoint how representations of maritime travel and dwelling might undermine or displace discourses of networked globality altogether, revealing its reductionist, limited explanatory potential.

While Kuo's and Wehbé's performances operate together in the essay to make this shared discursive gesture, I avoided drawing on affinities between the works—or between the Lebanese and Singaporean contexts more broadly—to the detriment of acknowledging their differences. To borrow Jane Rendell's terms, the essay operates "between two": not through a binary system that functions on "models of sameness, A and not-A," but rather through exploring "difference, A and B," to a shared critical end.4 

Figure 2. View of the sea from Gemmayze (corner of Pasteur and Dr Chukri El Hosari streets), Lebanon. (Photo: Copyright © Ella Parry-Davies, 2019.)

The works themselves, for example, are deliberately disparate: Kuo's, a scripted play from the mid-1990s; and Wehbé's, an extended practice spanning ten years and comprising documented performative reenactments, film, photography, archival research, and the publication of a book of essays and images.

This decision to bring disparate case studies together at the level of critique, rather than selecting works that matched in chronology, location, or genre, was debated in the process of peer review. What is at stake in how scholars select artworks to respond to? What readerly expectations are thrown into relief when the selection sits awkwardly in relation to disciplinary or aesthetic boundaries, in addition to bridging two geocultural contexts displaced from the dominant Euro-American "center" of institutional theatre and performance research?

These are weighty questions that cannot be exhaustively addressed here. Teasing out a concern I was left with in the course of writing and editing the essay about how we might operate "between two" when multiple axes intersect, I responded by making a short film in Wehbé's studio in Gemmayze. Instead of taking the viewer to the beach resorts in which Wehbé's performance reenactments took place, the film instead takes us slightly inland—at once 1.5 km and 35 km from the sea, depending on how you choose to access it—to the place where those performances are devised, researched, prepared, and reflected on. Wehbé's studio is where her costumes, props, and archives are stored. With its distinctive colors and artifact-filled composition, the studio is both a personal museum and creative infrastructure through which ideas are germinated and realized; it is also where she works as a freelance graphic designer to sustain her art practice economically. 

The "studio visit" is a canonical form of pedagogy and criticism in the field of visual arts. Behind this there is a politics of hospitality, whereby a student, curator, critic, or friend makes the journey to visit the artist on her terms. They join the artist for a few hours in her everyday environment, instead of meeting in the spectacular space of the gallery. They might bring drinks or food to share, or instead be offered them, tying together invitation, visitation, and conviviality. The artist's studio might also be her home, a place where creative and domestic labor bleed into each other. The studio visit acknowledges that more can be shared by being together in the space where creative processes occur than if the meeting took place elsewhere, or virtually.

This mode was not available to me in my research on Kuo's play, which instead demanded that I become a reader, historian, and spectator of documented performances. In taking up the studio visit, I am seeking to work again "between two," even while cognizant that the separateness of theatre and visual arts criticism is highly contingent. I do so in order to suggest ways in which thinking from each field might illuminate the concerns of the other. As Shannon Jackson argues at the opening of her book Social Works, which explores the politics of an "experimental chiasmus" hinging visual art and theatre: "Our evaluations of work depend not only upon critical histories but also upon disciplinary perceptual habits that can make for drastically different understandings of what we are in fact encountering. Perceptions of stasis and durationality, passivity and activity, stillness and action, might well be in the eye (and body) of the beholder."5

The studio visit displaces the priority of performance events, readjusting the focus of criticism toward the materials and spaces that surround and support the moment of presentation, but are not necessarily visible within it. At the same time, understanding Wehbé's work as performative or theatrical calls us to attend to the studio as an infrastructure: part of the material and economic "stage management" of art-making in Jackson's terms. This insists on the fact that, like performance, visual artworks depend upon spaces and labors—often collaborative ones—for their creation and maintenance. The film, then, aims both to contextualize the work I discuss in the Theatre Journal essay within Wehbé's broader practice and concerns, and to highlight the contrapuntal relationship between the perceptual habits of theatre and visual arts criticism that characterized my writing of it. 



1. Samar Kadi, "Sea Pollution in Lebanon Approaching Dangerous Levels," The Arab Weekly, August 12, 2018, available at https://thearabweekly.com/sea-pollution-lebanon-approaching-dangerous-levels.

2. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, "Singapore: Global City" (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1972), 9.

3. Cited in Sam R. Hakim and Saad Andary, "The Lebanese Central Bank and the Treasury Bills Market," Middle East Journal 51, no. 2 (1997): 230–41.

4. Jane Rendell, "between two," Journal of Architecture 8, no. 2 (2003): 224.

5. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011), 2, 4.