Delivered Home with No Eye Contact, an exhibition at Greenhouse in Rotterdam, 7-12 October 2020, curated by Juljia Muckutè, consists of a series of paintings by artist Diana Al-Halabi. They portray screenshots from video calls which Al-Halabi had with her family and friends back in Beirut, Lebanon while in the Netherlands. In the following text Muckutè asks Al-Halabi a couple of questions about the artist’s relation to home, phones and video calls.
Julija Muckutè: Can you really see someone through a screen?
Diana Al-Halabi: Not really, a screen speaks more of where we are, rather than whom we are, or how we are. It is tiring to have virtual reality, but it is much more convenient than if I would have traveled abroad to do my study back in 1900 for example. I would be sending my friends and family letters, which nonetheless would be valuable, but also ghostly.
Why do you facetime instead of calling?
— I need to see people in their settings, and I need to show them my surroundings. I don’t want any of us to become ghosts stuck in a labyrinth of memories. Unfortunately, even though I video call when I want to look into their eyes, I still find myself looking at their eyes and never into them. The impossibility of eye contact in a video call leaves you with the imperfections of technology and confronts you with the reality of distance. A phone can never break that distance, and we find ourselves neither here nor there. This is exactly why I decided to paint those video calls. I used to say that whoever didn’t migrate or live abroad, or has never been a refugee, can never understand what it is to have the dominance of this rectangular format of socializing in one’s life. Then the Covid-19 pandemic came to our lives, and almost everyone became a migrant in their own homes, dialing video calls almost all the time.
What role does the phone play in how you see where you belong?
— The phone is both a blessing and a curse. Everything related to it makes me have dual realities. On October 17th 2019, a revolution began in Beirut. I had only been in Rotterdam for one month and a half, so I was very fresh in the city, and seeing what was happening in Beirut was heartbreaking. My phone was constantly in my hands, even during seminars. I was refreshing my Facebook feed every minute to stay connected to what was happening in the streets of Beirut. The phone can split one’s life into two places, and that is both beautiful and exhausting. I once asked my friends to have a video call with me from inside the protest. So physically I would be walking in the streets of the Netherlands with people greeting me with a smile (given that it is sunny and they are in a good mood), while on my phone I would be looking at tear gas and people running for their lives. Disturbing no?
Very! Where is your home?
— At first, I didn’t think that this question would be difficult to answer. Since my arrival here in Rotterdam a year and a month ago, I haven’t visited my hometown yet, and a lot have happened since: a revolution, inflation, a pandemic and a blast that killed over 300 people, injured thousands, and destroyed half of the city (my home included).
So where is home? Is it here, in a city where I am still trying to find my favorite café and cheese? I don’t think so yet. Can home be a place that has changed immensely since I left? I am afraid to find out the answer, as well as I am afraid of going back to visit. Perhaps I don’t want to have the answer to this question, as it might be that I have no home anymore or at least until further notice.
Top image: Installation view. Photo: Steven Maybury, 2020