Photos à la Chair is a public art installation in Bahrain, aiming to bring the public, art and photography together. Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia, and Bahraini architect Ali Ismail Karimi organise this interactive public installation, collaborating with a different artist each time.
Every so often on their Instagram account (@photosalachair), Camille and Ali announce a time, location, and the artist they're collaborating with for the upcoming edition of Photos à la Chair. Then, people from Bahrain and all over the Gulf travel to appear in front of the lens.
Raz Hansrod from GPP asked Camille and Ali some questions about how Photos à la Chair came about, and what's happening next.
Hi Camille! Hi Ali! Please, introduce yourselves!
We are Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia and Bahraini architect Ali Ismail Karimi.
How exactly did Photos à la Chair come about?
The project began as a way of activating an installation done for a Al-Riwaq's annual outdoor art show. We thought of having an event that would feature artists, furniture designers, photographers, in the model of a one day group exhibition. By having an intervention in an outdoor setting we gave ourselves the opportunity to test out design ideas in a physical space, and to hold an event that allowed us to interact with completely different parts of Bahraini society. Neither of us took the event seriously, it was purely speculative with no particular end in mind; but that allowed a conversation on art to occur outside the framework of any governmental or professional setting, which for everyone involved was a welcome change. We enjoyed the first event and decided to do another, and a few more after that.
What are the unifying conditions between the seasons?
Each season we try to have four or five Photos à la Chair, and with each one we have different contributors, pick a new location, and try to up the ante a little bit. So far we've collaborated with 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 means that there is no inappropriate collaborator, as everyone brings something different to the public setting. The consistent elements are the photographic/documentary aspect: taking the portraits and producing the poster for the event provides a framework through which the different events can unfold and allows us to compare and contrast the various sittings.
Some seasons appear more ’orchestrated' than others. How is the event setup, exactly? An open call for attendees? Or, does it depend on the artist you’re collaborating with?
The process is completely casual. Sometimes we approach an artist with a location we find interesting, sometimes artists approach us with a location in mind. 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 around Bahrain.
These conversations 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. It is important to have opportunities to collaborate without the pressure of a gallery setting, so the discussions between us and the artists are insightful because the format allows for debate without the need to take any positions. We discuss areas of Bahrain that pique our curiosity, public art precedents, and the way we want to stage the event.
The idea typically emerges from that conversation. In many ways it helps that we come from different backgrounds. Camille is a photographer/artist and Ali is an architect, and the people who've participated have been from diverse professional and personal background so the conversation goes in different directions and all sorts of possibilities emerge.
Do you feel there could, perhaps, be greater public engagement with the arts within the Gulf? How is Photos à la Chair aiming to address this?
We realized that artists/architects in the Gulf rarely get to test out ideas in public. The aspiration to show 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. As opposed to most of the stuff we usually do, the event was meant to be informal and casual⏤a one time experiment in public art. But the energy surprised us.
We were excited by the opportunity to collaborate with new people and to engage the public and communities that never get to experience art outside a gallery setting. The question of greater public engagement with art in the Gulf is a much broader question which is difficult to answer without going into a longer conversation. But we do feel that one way to get greater public engagement with the arts is through creating and engaging different communities, creating forums to discuss and test out public works, and to use public art projects as a way of bridging between different elements of the society, and that is something we try to do with Photos à la Chair. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work, it depends on the day and the space and the artwork; but having that freedom to fail is a necessary part of engagement⏤the public appreciates experimentation and want to engage with something they feel is trying to do something.
We’ve spoken about how and what⏤but why images of artists/the public in front of a lens? What is it about photography here that is essential?
The goal of documenting it as an outdoor studio session means that different people can interact and document their participation in different ways. Some people come for a photo, others come to watch, and some just happen across the event randomly and decide to stick around to chat. Irrespective of whether or not you are interested in the work shown or in the format, there is some form of easy engagement with the intervention. Most people have been photographed, or taken a photograph within the past week and so the photography allows the project to always have a low barrier of entry for participants. It allows the project to take on both an archival dimension as well, keeping a record of the diverse communities of Bahrain and the country's landscape for posterity.
Any chance we’re going to see a season Photos à la Chair in the UAE soon?
We're hesitant to take it abroad, mainly because we aren't interested in the project traveling. We would rather have artists from abroad participate, or visitors join us for an event. The project is spatial in nature, and so we prefer to figure out how to make it even more precise and that specificity is designed around Bahrain. So really there has been very little urgency in terms of having it go elsewhere. There are plans to have a one-time Photos à la Chair in Amman for Amman Design week and one in Dubai in November (maybe). These two events in the coming season will allow us to evaluate whether or not we find it interesting to take Photos à la Chair abroad. Overall we are not interested in making it an international project. Given that the gulf is so small and close, we would prefer if people came from the UAE, and elsewhere in the Gulf to participate in a Photos à la Chair⏤and we've had that happen on a few occasions and it always makes for a much more enjoyable session.
We've been wanting 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 Photos à la Chair was the vehicle for that project. We would like to move in the direction of enabling projects and making more specific interventions. We have about a year's worth of artists who've reached out and sessions to come so there is the capacity and possibility of several more seasons of Photos à la Chair. We are always open to collaborations and new partners so if anyone reading this is interested, please feel free to reach out.
Camille Zakharia: @camillezakharia
Ali Ismail Karimi: @aikarimi
Thank you, Camille & Ali!