Daniel Berndt (Arab Image Foundation) in conversation with Marta Bogdańska

Has Beirut always been a hub for artists, intellectuals and cultural practitioners? Daniel Berndt  suggests that in mid 90s an institutional framework for contemporary art has been created, thanks to the effort of grass-root work of a small group of people. However it has been attracting the attention of cultural practitioner for years. It still is. Many artists have been coming here for shorter or longer visits, to do projects. Some of them decide to move and live here. Recently, there has been a noticeable growth in the number of more official artists-in-residence programmes, with three new ones opening in the last year and a half. In the past artists would come to Lebanon with either private funding or project related funding. It seems more and more possible nowadays to stay in Lebanon within the frames of certain types of residencies. With this idea in mind I wanted to investigate the realm of AIR programmes and see if there is truly a “boom” in them, where does it come from and if it is needed in Lebanon.


ARAB IMAGE FOUNDATION (AIF) is a well-known art institution. It just moved to a new location on the main street in Gemmayzeh in Beirut. Recently, it opened its artist-in-residence programme. I met with Daniel Berndt, who is currently responsible for the research programme, which includes taking care of a unique reference library in the region focusing on photography, its history and theory, a video library, a residency programme and a public programme scheduled around specific themes, which includes screenings, talks, symposia and workshops.


Marta Bogdańska: Can you tell me how the residency programme started at the AIF? How long has it been going on, what are the main ideas behind it?


Daniel Berndt: The programme was launched in 2009 and we sent out the first open call for applications  beginning of 2010. As an integral component of the research center, the residency program invites artists and researchers, who are interested in working with photography in the broadest sense mainly related to historical photographic collections or in the frame of what has been called “archival practices”.  The main idea was also to open the AIF collection to people to do research or develop artistic projects or interventions based on these photographs.

Our first resident was Doreen Mende, a German curator based in Berlin and the second Tayfun Serrtas, a Turkish artist from Istanbul. Both had very different approaches towards photography and historical documents. Doreen Mende worked during her residency on her ongoing project around photographs that were taken during photography workshops, which were organized by the PLO beginning of the 80s, during the civil war in Lebanon and taught by the East German photographer Horst Sturm. Tayfun Serrtas prepared his presentation and publication on the collection of the female Armenian photographer Maryam Şahinyan.

MB: So you formulated the call quite broadly, the proposed projects don’t have to be necessarily connected to the AIF collection?

DB: Well, there should be some kind of coherence. The proposed projects should tackle on photography, collecting or have at least a regional focus. But of course we would love to have people here engaging with certain parts of the collection or doing research on photographs or photographers that are part of the AIF collection. At the very beginning the very specific approach didn’t make it easy for us. We hoped for more applicants but now I think the last call already circulated in bigger networks and the resonance was much bigger. We distribute the call to not only in artistic networks but also to universities and we are planning to have it finally published bilingual, to get some more substantial proposals from the region. 

MB: What is the format of the residency? You said you have an open call, is it curated somehow? 

DB: We published an open call but also approached some people individually, of which we knew, that they were working on projects or research that would relate to the scope of the residency. But then again, the selection is based on the quality of the project, so every applicant has equal chances.

MB: And you intend to keep it this way: as open as possible?

DB: Yes, I would want to keep it this way. At the other hand I think it also makes total sense that if one knows of somebody, who is especially interested in certain issues, related to the scope of the residency program, to encourage him or her to apply.

MB: Do you have a lot of Lebanese artists applying?

DB: We got a few applications from Lebanon. Actually we figured out that there was some kind of misunderstanding at the beginning. Many people for some reason thought only foreigners could apply for the programme, which is definitely not the case 

MB: How do you secure funding for the residency programme?

DB: Well, for the first two circles we were supported by a grant from Prince Clause Fund (PCF). We are now approaching different embassies, so we might come to the point where we will have to have partners, which will tie the programme stronger to certain countries. But is still unclear.

MB: Does it mean that actually you are only now starting the difficult process of finding funding?

DB: Specifically for the residency: Yes. The long-term partnership with PCF secured the development of the research programme and many of its activities, including the residency for the past two years. But unfortunately this partnership just ended and we are again looking for support

MB: From what I know it is very hard to find funding for residencies. You told me that the residencies lasted three months. How long are you planning them to be?.

DB: Yes, we initially started with three months residencies and I think we will stick to this model.

MB: When you have a call for application do you expect people to apply with a specific project or is it based on their practice?

DB: Both. I mean, we ask in the application form: How do you imagine, to utilize this residency? We don’t necessarily expect a fully developed project proposal but we want some ideas, of what could be done during these three months in Beirut that relates either to the AIF collection or the interest/practice of the artist and researcher. 

MB: Do you have a production budget, in case?

DB: Yes, there is a production fee, but it is quite modest.

MB: So, it is flexible, you don’t expect a completed project by the end of the residency?

DB: Not necessarily.  It can be also work in progress, for which the residency serves as some sort of supporting structure providing time in and resources Beirut.

MB: Tayfun had an exhibition at Zico House, was it something extra that happened?

DB: I would say the exhibition was something that we didn’t really expect, as it was not really related to his research. It didn’t have so much to do with the residency programme or the activities of the AIF, which was kind of a challenge for us: It is kind of difficult to supervise artists or researchers in residence, to keep them on track but also allow them enough freedom to work on whatever they want to.

MB: Do you plan to have partnerships with other organisations?

DB: Yes, this would be very interesting. Some initial contacts have been made but nothing is concrete yet.

MB: Do you think there is a growing interest in residency programmes recently in the region? There is your residency, Batroun Projects is starting, and UMAM has a very new residency programme.

DB: Frankly, I think it is a very simple concept, a way for a cultural institution to integrate public programming into its activities. What I mean by public programming is that you get a certain outreach and you engage other people. Funders see where there money goes, there is some sort of cultural exchange, so everybody is happy. That is just very pragmatically speaking. For the AIF it is mainly an approach to open the collection, to have people interact with it and to produce knowledge.

The growth of residency programmes in Lebanon seems significant mainly because it such a dense context in a pretty small place. There are only a few institutions that have to deal with limited funding. I think residency programmes are besides the aim to support artists and researchers attractive for organisations like UMAM, Ashkal Alwan or the AIF for various reasons, for example to create a network with other institutions, to have public outreach, visibility and international presence.

MB: Do you think there is a way to get any Lebanese funders for this kind of projects?

DB:  Funding from the Lebanese government for cultural institutions or initiatives is very rare, close to zero.  So the AIF also to big part depending on the generosity of private funders and corporate funding.

 MB: I asked you about “the boom” also because Beirut has always been attractive to artists, they have been coming here anyways, there is an unofficial flow of people coming, staying, doing projects here. I wanted to ask you if in this situation you think that these residency programmes are needed? Are they going to be beneficial for artistic community here?

DB: Of course, it is always good to have a flux of people, not only in Beirut but everywhere. For any city or art scene it is important to have this kind of dynamic. It is fruitful. It is an exchange between individuals with different backgrounds. It is very important.  But when it comes to organised residencies… Yes, there should be residencies, of course, but I think it should not be sort of “over-institutionalised” in the sense that some of these programmes are. For many artists it is not necessarily beneficial to work in the frame of a residency. For sure it is nice to be supported financially but these residencies come with restricted frames most of the time. As an artist you might not want to work within those.

In my opinion some of the residency programmes are overrated in terms of purpose and the outcome. The criteria, under which artists go on residencies, are also sometimes not very clear. For most of them it is a nice occasion to reactivate certain aspects of their practice, or be confronted with an environment they aren’t familiar with, and again it inspires their work. At the other hand it can also lead to the contrary, a tricky situation for both the artist and the institution that provides the supportive structure.

 MB: It is also very challenging to create something good in a new place, when you only have limited amount of time.

DB: Exactly, sometimes artists have like three months or even less to create or produce something. It is difficult to evaluate the outcome. Often it is the case, when you travel somewhere that after two months you hardly manage to get over a perception dominated by a set of stereotypes… What do you work with then? Do you actually get the chance to develop a critical perspective on the situation?


About Marta Bogdańska