Nets of iron

After my last post about rail infrastructure, my attention was drawn to the apexart website.

apexart is a not-for-profit contemporary visual arts organisation located in Lower Manhattan, New York. Through exhibitions, international residency, publication initiatives, and programs and events, it is committed to “cultural and intellectual diversity and aims to stimulate public dialogue about contemporary art”. It attempts to “promote consideration” among local audiences while extending this dialogue to international audiences through print and electronic outreach.

One program run by apexart is “Franchise“, which involves a worldwide open call for 400-word proposals asking participants why the franchise should come to their town and provide all of the support necessary to produce an exhibition. The winner gets to be be the director and curator of his or her own apexart franchise with an $8,000 budget, small salary and almost complete control. apexart provides funding and guidance. This includes an apexart brochure in an edition of 10,000 and its distribution around the world. To quote apexart, “the Franchise is an opportunity to help bring a new idea to fruition in a new place and to illustrate that the center of the world is wherever you are.”

Damascus-Hejaz Station - open only from 1913 to 1917 (from Wikipedia)

Damascus-Hejaz Station - open only from 1913 to 1917 (from Wikipedia)

The 2011 winners, Eric Gottesman and Toleen Touq are based in Amman, Jordan, and their entry is worth quoting in full:

We Have Woven the Motherlands with Nets of Iron

At the turn of the 20th century, the Hejaz, a narrow-gauge railway built south from Damascus to transport pilgrims to Mecca during the Hajj, represented a tangible, if utopic, dream of a united Middle East. Part divine aspiration, part vehicle for political gain, the train was designed to connect Istanbul through present-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the holiest cities of Islam. A decade later, the British, eager to replace the Ottoman Empire with its own, initiated what would become decades of European battles in the region. The dream was obliterated: Lawrence of Arabia and a Bedouin army blew the railway apart during WWI. It never recovered but the tracks still remain. After the rise and fall of empires, what is left of the withered dream to transcend physical and metaphysical borders? Having endured wars and conquests, the trains persist, limping along, rented out to nostalgic tourists and enthusiasts.

A modern light rail system threatens to replace the historic Hejaz as urban Amman sprawls eastward into the desert. Trains, like Arab unity itself, have a romantic geography: nearly obsolete, valued for historical symbolism, begging to be updated or made once again relevant. We propose to revisit this older way of moving through the Jordanian landscape, to restage the dream of regional cohesion, to repopulate the Hejaz with events created by artists from the countries through which the train once ran.

We will invite artists from each of the four countries of the Hejaz (Jordan, Saudi, Syria, and Turkey) to produce installations, performances on movable platforms, archival projects using remnants of the rail lines and other projects, all of which will take place on the rails in Jordan.


The Hedjaz Jordan Railway "International Train" at Amman Station (from Wikipedia)

The relationship between railways, nationalism and colonialism is long and complex, but it is interesting that the idea of a Middle East united through a rail network has been around for so long, even if it was shattered by world wars, oil wars and other conflicts. And while trains may have become “nearly obsolete” in this part of the world, they are being “made once again relevant”. Recently the  concept of a rather grandly-titled “International Rail Network” for the Middle East was revived and while progress to date has been haphazard, the Gulf Arab states are now planning to spend more than $US100 billion on rail projects across the region.

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