Morocco and a Hard Place - A Biennale Diary
Near East, Issue 1, 2013
You spend a year planning an art festival in a 16th century ruin. You invite artists, distribute press releases, appear on panels in Switzerland and Italy, host parties in London, Berlin and Morocco, and begin to edit a book about site-specific exhibition making that will focus on the particular historical identity of your venue.

You decide that the show won’t be a roll call of over-exposed Western art stars but, instead, the best of your own generation alongside leading voices from the African continent. As a strategic hedge, you secure the participation of an artist so well known that the whole enterprise will be spit-polished by her in-demand gravitas. With her on board the lesser knowns are plainly signs of intention and no symptom of your lack of star-catching power.

You tour the venue and pinch yourself. It is more fantastic than the Arsenale in Venice, boasting crumbling mud walls whose high turrets are crowned with stork’s nests – great piles of sticks, each containing an alien creature clicking its beak in a kind of primeval music. The dream setting for the chance of a curatorial lifetime.

You decide that all forty artists need to visit the space before they even think about what to make. At great expense they are flown in from every corner of the globe. The proposals start to arrive, each more ambitious and than the last. Never mind the fact that the total budget for the exhibition is exceedingly modest for a project of such ambition. This is Morocco. Things are cheap and magic is the order of business.

A bomb rips through the heart of Marrakech. The Argana café in the city’s main square, Djemma el-Fna, is obliterated. Seventeen people are killed and twenty injured. Radical Islamists from up the coast at Safi. Just a one-off, according to wishful local commentary, not evidence that the country is sliding towards chaos like its neighbors. Even so, you write to reassure your artists, hoping they won’t pull out. None do except one: your star turn – citing the intensification of ongoing professional commitments. But the show must go on.

During the following months hotel owners report a nosedive in bookings. This must have been the attackers’ intent. All the more reason for the project to continue. After all, the biennale was started as an attempt to build bridges between the Islamic world and the West in the paranoid midst of the Bush years. As an international cultural initiative, your project feels more relevant than ever.

How lucky you are to have your exhibition site. Or, at least, to have been told that numerous informal assurances – from princesses, ambassadors and flunkies – have been given to your colleagues confirming the prompt issue of official permission. With only a little doubt you raise the matter intermittently with the biennale team, who continually report warm dialogue with authorities. “But we really need concrete permission”, you repeat with six months to go. “You have to know”, one colleague replies, “that in Morocco everything is possible but nothing is certain”. With folk wisdom like that in hand you push on.

Three months later and instead of permission your colleagues receive a letter stating, unequivocally, that the venue is not available. A sickening faint. There is an election in a week’s time and the political landscape is uncertain, with reverberations from the Arab Spring gaining momentum. Odds are, the apparatchik who signed the letter will be out on his ear in ten days. His replacement won’t arrive for another month and that is too long to wait for a reversal. More nausea: Without a physical venue, you worry, there will be nothing specific about your ‘site-specific’ exhibition.

‘We’re building a bridge above a yawning void’ is how Werner Herzog described the process of making Fitzcaraldo. Hubris. You look at a publicity photo of yourself taken at the Palais Badia, wearing a white Jellaba covered in multi-coloured polka dots that you had intended as a knowing riff on Damien Hirst. Behind your vain figure is a wall built six centuries before you were born; a wall that will be standing after you have finished swanning around Marrakech and this life too.

In a panic, you telephone one of the board members – a local architect – and ask him to take you to any sites that he can secure through private contacts. By the time he picks you up the sun is waning and a desert chill creeping in. He mentions the Cisterns of the Grand Koutoubia Mosque in the centre of the Medina. He was responsible for restoring them and they looked great in a photo you remember – long brick tunnels, dramatically lit. You recall how you tried to gain permission to access to them previously, during a meeting in the bare office of the Director of Historical Monuments – set within a down at heel government building. At the time he told you that it was impossible to enter them without higher permission, from the Minister of Culture in Rabat – a man he didn’t know, yet, as he had only been in his job for twenty minute prior to your arrival. Now, standing outside the Koutoubia, you see it was just a bluff. You can walk right into the Cisterns through a steel gate that has been ripped from its hinges by determined vagrants, keen to use the tunnels for shelter. As you descend the stairs you step over numerous piles of human feces. In the tunnel, pitch black, a stink indicates that there is more of the same to discover. With only light from your mobile phone to guide the way you walk further into the dark, trying to picture all your pending artworks for the Badi Palace installed in this depressing space. The roof is lower than you’d like.

Now you have left the subterranean path and are screaming down the Ourika Road in the direction of the Atlas Mountains in the architect’s black Range Rover. Some kilometers down, he pulls up alongside the concrete shell of a luxury hotel complex. Nothing but skeleton, missing windows and surfaces. It will probably never be anything more than the developer’s speculative failing. The architect knows the owner and thinks that we can probably get permission to use it. Night has fallen and there is no one guarding the buildings behind the corrugated tin fence so, at once, in fit of desperation, you ask him to give you a boost.

In a few seconds you are over the wall and climbing up rough-hewn concrete stairs in the dark, exploring the carcass of a half-realized vision. You worry that you might encounter squatters. After a few stumbles and minutes of poking around you ascend to the roof. From there you look out directly upon the Marrakech race track – built to the spec of the international Formula One circuit but only ever utilized once to that effect. Another mirage.

The architect has one more place to show you – it’s a factory just outside town by the railway station. You drive the underlit streets, making wrong turns. It seems he can’t remember quite where it is. You stop at the traffic lights and about thirty seconds later feel a loud thump. One of the city’s countless moped riders has ploughed straight into the back of your stationary vehicle. His bike has lost more than a bit of fuselage but the idiot driver is fine. The architect gets out to inspect the damage – one rear light smashed. Neither of them exchange any worlds and the moped rider, looking only a little bit sheepish and with what seems like the architect’s tacit consent, takes off into the night. There was no way he had insurance.