We think about skills a lot at Beirut Art Center. It comes up often in our exchanges with artists, makers and designers, but also with the various technicians we work closely with during and between exhibitions. Thinking about skills—and their inextricable link to workers of all kinds—allows us to conceive of art in a way that is profoundly entangled with a number of social, political and historical realities. It is also an area that enables us to complicate reductive dichotomies such as tradition and innovation, past and future, craft and art, skilled and unskilled.
In sociology, the term deskilling refers to the process implemented with the onset of modernity, as the labor force began to shift from modes of transmission of knowhow, like masters and apprentices, and collective forms of organizing like guilds and unions; towards more individualized structures such as wage labor, and gig or platform economies. Capitalism is the backbone of this movement, and the division of labor, mechanization and automation are its vehicles.
In the arts, deskilling is often historicized to originate from the onset of the readymade and conceptual art; but here too, the displacement of skills stems from a complex series of social transformations such as the perception and role of art in society and the results of technological transformation. Deskilling manifests in hordes of studio assistants, handlers, fabricators, suppliers etc. being increasingly instrumental to artistic production, yet they are also systematically rendered invisible and precarious in the art world.
The reverberations of the term deskilling resonate with varying intensities in the world. Here in Lebanon, the financial crisis has accelerated debates around the untenability of the dollarized nightmare we continue to drown in, where services constitute an overwhelming majority of the country’s GDP, at the expense of agriculture, craft and industry. It seems clear to many that if we are to survive for at least a little while longer, there needs to be some level of re-enchantment with what we know, what we use, what we make, what we eat—but also, a profound rethinking of the social ties that conduct these processes.
From the Rooftops, Beirut Art Center’s community garden is one of the very modest ways in which we are trying to think through our current economic circumstances and social crises by gathering around communal projects of mutual aid and self-sustenance. We propose these projects not as solutions to a profound crisis whose scale is beyond any one initiative, nor do we think that solutions can ever be found in a return to any sort of prior state. Rather we think of these projects as opportunities to gather and think through making, and to gain awareness of the mechanisms that dispossess farmers, craftspeople and workers alike.
The series of workshops we are offering are based on skill sharing and introduce participants to the basics of crafts, preservation and distillation. This program will evolve and expand within a range of urgent to more leisurely needs, in a bid to widen the center’s audience and community on the one hand, and notions of what might constitute artistic practice and discourse on the other.