Haddad and Hachem like to experiment and collaborate with specialised craftspeople, in a kind of back-and-forth system. “Generally, we take a piece from one craftsperson to another: one of them bends the metal, another welds it, and so on. Often there are many people involved, and the process usually demands a lot of effort. Since we are asking the artisans to do things they are not used to doing, we are challenging them and their machines. In order to discover new possibilities.” Effort and engagement also come from the duo. “A craftsperson’s first reaction is often: this is impossible. So we have to sit down and talk. For hours and hours. Thus, we learn from each other and find solutions.” The design world might be very much in favour of 3D printing at the moment, but 200Grs considers working with craftspeople as precious added value. “Of course it takes time and energy, and we frequently embark on the most absurd conversations. But we believe that their knowledge should not be wasted; along with the presence of technology, there should be equilibrium and exchange.” Their quaint system of operating, devoting a lot of attention to detail and precision, certainly has them weaving a path through Beirut, of craftspeople lost in translation... “You know, we’re not only challenging ourselves. We go beyond the final result, touching upon all the different aspects in the process – we call it a performance!”
With her architecture and design students from the American University of Beirut and the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, Haddad frequently makes installations in the public space. “Just after the war, I noticed that young people didn’t feel connected to the city at all, because – for their safety – their parents had always kept them off the streets. Doing installations at that time seemed to be the best way to engage them in their own city, so that they could discover what Beirut stands for.” Which was quite a tricky thing to do back then, as the government was imposing total amnesia on its citizens. One could get arrested for speaking out. It was, and still is, a delicate situation, because lots of money is involved. “In 2000, the Theatre de Beyrouth was about to close down, and we were invited to take part in the last edition of the Festival. It was in these premises during the war that the Arabic/Lebanese language specific to the theatre was born. So, for our contribution, we decided to take one chair from the theatre and cut it into two very slowly, every day from 1:00 to 1:30pm in the theatre’s vitrine. A huge crowd would assemble in the street, a much larger audience than there had ever been inside the theatre. They were asking questions, having suddenly noticed the existence of this building, and actually found themselves protesting against its destruction. Thanks to this action, we were able to extend its lifespan by an extra 18 months. “Although in the end the theatre was closed down, we believe that somehow the intervention played an important role and triggered a ripple effect.”
As an artist, Hachem makes installations too, and is represented by Selma Feriani Gallery London/Tunisia, and by Federica Schiavo Gallery Rome/Milan. One of his installations was situated along the walls of the Dome Cinema, aka The Egg, an iconic venue in the heart of Beirut that had survived the war. There he placed huge hammers of the sort used to demolish buildings. “Citizens know these hammers, as they are commonly used to tear down heritage buildings.” Even though there were numerous public protests to save the edifices, the government didn’t take the citizens’ concerns into consideration. Together with the real estate companies and the mafia, it made and imposed all decisions. “During the war there was no urban planning; after the war it was mainly money that spoke. Trying to stop them destroying buildings was very difficult right after the war, given all the power involved.” The upshot is that the current urban centre is cut off from the rest of the city. “They made the gap created by the war even bigger. And we got used to it... In my piece, the hammers were pounding against the wall of the cinema slowly and softly. They didn’t destroy the war-damaged building, but everybody knew what they meant.” Hachem’s hammers were trying to wake up and empower democracy in Beirut.
It seems that if the going gets tough, the tough get going, and that is the basis of the revival in Beirut. Hachem nods. “We are all a product of the context in which we live. Many developments make our daily life here in Beirut more challenging, complicated, and difficult than it should be. We absorb this. We react. We work with it and we put it out there. We play with all the layers and share our thoughts and feelings in a con- structive way, in order to establish something better.”