A Calamitous Node in a Planetary Chain

The project »All Cared for by Chains and Loops« by web resident Bassem Saad elaborates on the interrelation of Beirut’s garbage crisis and economies of waste and care.

Interview with Bassem Saad — Sep 16, 2020

Bassem Saad, »A Calamitous Node in a Planetary Chain«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

How do we come to terms with the scale of for-profit recycling, land reclamation from seacoast dumpsites, and waste-to-energy incineration funded by waste imported from Europe? And how can we reflect on different forms of (un-)care in times of highly polluted environment? Artist Bassem Saad investigates these questions with his project All Cared for by Chains and Loops created for the web residencies by Solitude and ZKM on the topic »Planetary Glitch« curated by Marry Maggic. A 3D model of a near-future fiction set in Beirut serves as the stage for a paranoid queer narrator who functions as a performative channel to outline specific life-preserving rituals and different forms of (un-)care.

Schlosspost: Your project All Cared for by Chains and Loops takes the garbage crisis in Beirut as starting point for further thoughts on interrelations between global care chains, private self-care, and for-profit waste management. What is your specific approach? In what way does your project address »planetary glitch«?

Bassem Saad: Sadly, the glitch is never a single event but the regular and continuous functioning of flows of capital. In any locale where calamitous environmental or infrastructural collapse seems to occur suddenly, a rhetoric of »crisis« is almost always employed (Flint water crisis! Lebanese garbage crisis!). As my mentor Sintia Issa is keen to articulate, this serves to exceptionalize that collapse and obfuscate the reality that it is fully inscribed in and perfectly coherent with the preceding long-term planning carried out by the concerned private, governmental, and transnational actors. In Lebanon, we are now in a sort of postdiluvian moment: garbage flowed on the streets of Beirut more than three years ago and since then, no full-ranging structural solution has been implemented. The trash is no longer in plain sight on the streets but has been dealt with provisionally in very questionable ways, and the discussion has largely receded from the public realm. There are various sources and accounts that state that rates of water pollution and toxicity have increased exponentially in Beirut and in the country, along with rates of different types of cancer and other diseases. This proves vastly more difficult to visualize and mobilize against, given the complete lack of government transparency and verifiable data.

This is where we may begin to discuss notions that exemplify planetary-scale shifts, glitches, and surface slippages such as toxicity and environmental externalities. In 2018, China effectively banned the import of plastic waste, causing European Union governments to find other destinations and to reconsider criteria for export. In a way, this is emblematic of the continuing rise of China within the global hierarchy and its rapid technological development, within what has been termed the end of unilateral globalization by Yuk Hui. China no longer imports trash but exports veritable technological thought and progress, further complicating any North/South divide. In Lebanon, emergency plans to fund waste-to-energy incinerators are being put forward that include the import of waste; knowing the Lebanese government’s track record of dealing with waste, there is no reason to suppose that this will be carried out with the necessary regard for public health. If not to China or Lebanon, the waste may still find its way to other governments in the Global South who may resort to importing out of material necessity, with standards of safety that may vary from those in action in Europe.

Perhaps that waste may even find its way to one of the African and Asian countries that export devalued manual labor by way of migrating domestic care workers, who may end up providing domestic care services to aging or ill clients in Lebanon, the Arab world, and other countries under the notoriously exploitative Sponsorship (Kafala) system and its equivalents. The sponsorship system excludes workers from the International Labor Law and has even spawned its own racist domestic architectures.1 This system is an example of a global care chain, defined as any link between individuals across the world based on paid or unpaid care work, but it is specifically a South-to-South chain.

»I’ve started imagining it as containing an ailing population, poisoned by its own excrement and imported waste, that must then be »cared for« by a reserve army of care laborers who are trafficked in from other nodes that are further South on the chain.«

So in a way Beirut sits as a node in different planetary chains, where it heavily imports care labor and may start to import waste. I’ve started imagining it as containing an ailing population, poisoned by its own excrement and imported waste, that must then be »cared for« by a reserve army of care laborers who are trafficked in from other nodes that are further South on the chain. This exacerbated reality is the starting world of the project.

Bassem Saad, »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

Bassem Saad - Screenshot of All Cared for by Chains and Loops

SP: Thinking of the dynamics of global waste disposal and its local impact, knowledge production becomes a key concept in your project. How does your 3D model of a near-future fiction set in Beirut work and how does it mobilize a change in system thinking and information theory?

BS: By systems thinking and modeling, I am referring to the models and schema that seek to represent and simulate real phenomena, employed by various disciplines and fields of study from architecture to system dynamics and cybernetics. There is of course a dizzyingly wide array of approaches and objectives associated with modeling: some models aim to represent knowledge about a particular system, others aim to know more about a system by simulating its behavior and studying that simulation rather than the real object itself, while in others the modeling is the design process itself. In the latter instance, a big debate where a lot of energy is being channeled in recent years is how to model Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) by combining different intelligences into one larger model.

I’m currently most interested in the graphic representation of the flows and feedback loops of specific material objects or pieces of information in a model. I can’t make grand claims towards scientific rigor, but my objective in appropriating modeling tools and forms is twofold: to speculatively bring into contact different phenomena that wouldn’t otherwise be schematized within the same model, while also reflecting on how that model is being constructed. Entropy and emergence are both system properties, and in this project I’ve thought about what it means to model toxicity in relation to carcinogenesis as an entropic process in a given population. How to model the movement of care work in the same space as the movement of waste? What objects or persons does a city refuse to see and can they be drawn together?

»Entropy and emergence are both system properties, and in this project I’ve thought about what it means to model toxicity in relation to carcinogenesis as an entropic process in a given population.«

Last month, Grindr was banned in Lebanon for »security reasons«, and people from the queer community were outraged but it felt so outlandish to even conceive of protesting that in any way while living in the midst of ecological collapse. After this happened, I started thinking of an ecological readaptation of a queer cult classic film involving waste, set in Beirut. Hopefully I’ll get to do that. (I’d like to thank my creative partner and co-conspirator Edwin Nasr who always forces me to watch more cinema!)

SP: In the 3D model of a dwelling space lives a paranoid queer narrator who is apparently confronted with an intelligence which causes local damage to the immediate environment. What role does the character play and what does the intelligence stand for?

BS: The character in the fiction is loosely based on some of my own contextual experiences in Beirut, but taken to a high-pressure extreme. I’m using that character as a performative conduit, speaking in their voice and making objects as I imagine they would. That performative layer allows me to introduce some corruption and delirium into the source material of my research. The models and diagrams I mentioned earlier are in the fiction one of the rituals that the character carries out as a way of warding off imminent collapse. In their mind, these are akin to apotropaic spells. These actions are part of their self-care routine, in addition to lighting up an incinerator-cum-incense-burner. So distilling information and relations into that routine is a way of entangling self-care into systemic environmental hazards. How do you hydrate with poisoned water?

SP: Why is the 3D model the right format for your project?

BS: So far in my practice, I’ve relied on the tools and digital media that I picked up during my architecture training, and this has naturally included 3D modeling and rendering. This web-based iteration is part of the longer project I’m working on at the fellowship at Ashkal Alwan, that also includes video and physical installation.

»I’m focusing on virtual rendering and texture of skin, the site of physical enclosure of an organism and its interaction with its surrounding systems.«

I’m also interested in the study rendering as a tool and an activity that is an integral part of any design process. In the past, my partner Edwin Nasr and I have dealt with rendering and virtual imagery as used by different (para-)military actors such as the United States Army and Hezbollah as a means of narrating hegemonic histories and mediating collective traumas. In this project, I’m focusing on virtual rendering and texture of skin, the site of physical enclosure of an organism and its interaction with its surrounding systems. When a CG artist is constructing a digital character, they must work on the skin texture as a UV-mapped 2D space and so there is a process of unwrapping and cartographically projecting the organism’s skin. You get an unprecedented view and mapping of human skin that is completely useless except to whatever algorithm is mapping that texture onto the 3D body of the character. It looks like a skinned animal rug. In the fiction, these surfaces are used as talismanic garments.

Bassem Saad, »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

Bassem Saad, Screenshot of »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«

SP: »(Un-)Care« seems to become a main term in your project. Could you explain what you specifically mean by the notion of »(un-)care«?

BS: By (un-)care, I am very plainly referring to the spaces and economies that are detrimental to biological life (human and other) that are actually the abstracted results of transnational market processes involving care or maintenance. There is necessarily a geographic shift and discrepancy that allows that surplus care to be generated such as in the two examples relevant to the project. One is the exporting of waste overseas where the liability of the exporting country is limited and where the resulting ecological detriment in the receiving country is unaccounted for. Another is the example of the Kafala system I mentioned above and the domestic relations and architectures it engenders. Even though migrant domestic/care workers provide the most intimate forms of labor, they suffer from the most racism, both structural and interpersonal. I would like to mention here the seminal work of the Migrant Community Center in Beirut, which provides a safe community space and support for migrant domestic workers working in the country.

»Even though migrant domestic/care workers provide the most intimate forms of labor, they suffer from the most racism, both structural and interpersonal.«

Some of the objects in the web intervention contain sound recordings from interviews I’ve done with two local figures involved respectively in waste and care economies.

SP: In your opinion, what shift should global waste management undertake for a better future?

BS: I’m definitely not qualified to answer that. One of the problems here is that even with the existence of international treaties such as that of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, there is still fear about how the receiving governments will deal with the trash. In the source country, the exported trash is classified under »recycling« and all but forgotten.

Bassem Saad, »A Calamitous Node in a Planetary Chain«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

Bassem Saad, »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

Bassem Saad, »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

SP: You studied architecture and worked within different projects on identity-based space and queer fear. How is your artistic research informed by architecture and economic/biological/social theories?

BS: Queer fear is a term I’m toying with starting with this project, that I’d like to develop further later on. The character in the fiction I am working on becomes hyperaware of their surrounding toxicity and begins devising schemes and rituals to visualize, simulate, and deliriously reorient the behavior of the system in which they are imbricated. I’m thinking here of different notions developed in recent years that may be termed »representational quandaries« such as Rob Nixon’s slow violence; they refer to threats of such massive scale, both in geography and temporality, that become difficult to visualize and discern critically.These two terms are environmental in a traditional sense, but challenges of representation and abstraction are central to political causes across different domains. How to model or represent a toxic metropolis, waste migrating North-South across the planet, or an ill population, be it from a cancer epidemic or from latent psychopathologies?

Bassem Saad, »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«, 2018, Planetary Glitch

Bassem Saad, Screenshot of »All Cared for by Chains and Loops«

Queer fear is a personal strategy that is one answer to those representational quandaries. It is also in response to certain anti-social strands in Western queer theory that see in concern for the future a necessarily repressive temporal ideology. [2] The prime example is Lee Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurity in the figure of »the child« in heterosexist environmental campaigns that bind the well-being of the environment to the well-being of the heterosexual family offspring. However, I would like to counter that dismissal of the future with the belief that it misses the point, especially in space-times of high toxicity in the Global South or in indigenous and impoverished communities. If the figure of the queer is traditionally associated with non-normative practices that may compromise their health and longevity, from spontaneous sexual activity to recreational ingestion of toxic substances, they are also associated with a heightened awareness around issues of agency and consent. Whereas recreational drug intake can be voluntary, environmental toxicity is always nonconsensual, and hence the need for a queer fear.

»Fear and wariness are thus effects that the artist practices and vocalizes to the best of their abilities, not because there is not enough despair in the world: fear and hope share a troubled relationship, but they are not opposites.«

Fear and wariness are thus effects that the artist practices and vocalizes to the best of their abilities, not because there is not enough despair in the world: fear and hope share a troubled relationship, but they are not opposites. Cassandra is the princess from Greek mythology who has the gift of prophecy but whose warnings are never believed. So I’m amused by this idea of the artist in Cassandra drag, a paranoid but hopeful Cassandra who is hopefully not ignored!

Finally, I would like to thank brilliant friends who made this project possible. Zeynab Ghandour aka Thoom and Pad Fut, Chicago-based artists and musicians, contributed the sound. W. F. Lee, artist, game-designer, and writer, coded the project into existence.

I would also love to take this opportunity to mention some fellow artists who have worked on projects with threads related to waste and toxicity in the region. Jessika Khazrik, with The Blue Barrel Grove (2013-ongoing); Dala Nasser, with David Adjaye’s Trash (2015); Fadi Mansour, with Sealand (2018).

Interview by Sophie-Charlotte Opitz.

Bassem Saad

Bassem Saad is an artist/writer born on 9/11 and trained in architecture. His work deals with future visualization and simulation, queer fear, identity-based space and knowledge production, and market exchanges and/or interfaces that include affect, bodily pleasure, and care. Recently his work was shown in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennial. His video work has recently been screened in Beirut, Paris, and Rimini, and he has spoken at Harvard University VES. He has also written for ArteEast, FailedArchitecture, Jadaliyya, and other publications. He is currently a resident fellow at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program in Beirut.

Sophie-Charlotte Opitz

Sophie-Charlotte Opitz is a transdisciplinary scholar in visual culture studies and cultural memory studies. In 2019, she is the art coordination fellow within the Digital Solitude program and works as the editor for Schlosspost,and other projects. After her degree in philosophy and art education, she wrote a PhD thesis on aesthetics and the dynamics of war and conflict photography. Opitz has published a range of articles on photography, memory dynamics, and art education, at e.g. transcript Verlag. She is primarily interested in the layers of time and space that form our everyday lives, and the politics of (in-)visibility.

Find out more about her work on her webpage.

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