He creates content daily, by candlelight. For weeks now, Kerbaj has been without electricity. Still, the Beirut-based artist and musician catalogs his world of "comics and bombs," Guernica-like portraits and poetic shavings, as his computer battery dies. He writes and draws what he knows, continuing with his way of life as much as possible. His ideology is an anti-ideology: he’s supporting the Lebanese cause by refusing to let war get in the way of art.
Kerboj says he rejects politics. Actually, on his "Kerblog," he writes: "THIS IS BLOG DEDICATED TO ART. AND AS SUCH, IT VOMITS ON ANYTHING CALLED POLITICS." About his statement that he erases any such commentary from his blog, Kerbaj says, "Yeah, it sounds rude, but you’re not in the ‘real’ Disneyland here."
Kerbaj has also produced "Starry Night," for which he has found a worldwide fan base, thanks to e-mail lists spreading the sounds. Recorded over two days in July, the approximately six-minute song features Kerbaj playing trumpet — and what sounds like a bass clarinet — live on a balcony as Israeli air force bombs blast in the background, setting off a cacophony of car alarms.
As an artist, how do you tackle world issues in a way that’s responsible and meaningful? For Kerbaj, the problem hits too close to home. And, appropriately enough, his response is visceral. He’s "fucking resisting" with turbulent lip service on his trumpet. Political art is intellectualized. What’s to pontificate when your apartment is vibrating from the force of exploding earth mere miles away?
Local CCS student George Rahme (who, incidentally, shares a bloodline with well-known Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran) understands Kerbaj’s stance. "He’s using his experience, manipulating sounds around him, and leaving politics to politics."
Rahme too has an intimate connection to the situation in Lebanon, but he doesn’t feel the need to comment on it directly in his art. "I’ve got cousins and second cousins in Lebanon. My uncle is there in right now on business in an area that got bombed. He doesn’t want to leave. I’m thinking he’s out of his mind. I could be making political art, but I can’t stand it. I feel like I belong to myself. America gives us the freedom. We don’t owe our art anything. We can direct it however we want to."
Instead, Rahme’s art deals with social issues on a universal level. He says he allows "viewers to take it there, if they want." This past year, he created a memorial for human compassion in the CCS courtyard, a high-traffic area of campus. The piece was a fragmented human silhouette made of wooden blocks. Passers-by contributed personal mementos on the sculpture, everything from a compass to earrings to some orange Jell-O. "We have lost connection to each other," Rahme says. "I see it all over the world, and even at our school, so I chose to act on a local level." Like Kerbaj, Rahme wants immediacy in his art.
Kevin Beasley, another CCS student, takes a more aggressive approach with his work. He recently presented a statement on international politics in a new media class. In response to dozens of beheadings in Iraq, Beasley created an installation that unsettled more than a few faculty members and fellow students.
Beasley feels that he needed, that we need, a wake-up call. He discovered footage of Michigan-native Eugene Armstrong’s beheading on the site ogrish.com, which presents images of graphic violence from around the world. He hooked up a TV and DVD player inside a steel cage, and draped a semi-transparent white cloth over it. For 58 seconds the audio played the gruesome track. You hear some Arabic spoken, then rustling, then yelling and screaming as Armstrong is decapitated. His voice changes, distorted unrecognizably.
Many described it as the sound of a pig being slaughtered; it was too much to take. "One teacher," Beasley says, "tried to physically move it the first time I presented it." He played it in the hallway as classmates were on break and roaming the corridor. "When she came out, she said, ‘Turn it off. This is ridiculous. We don’t need to hear that.’"
Beasley recalls that some who couldn’t bear it walked away, while others, stunned or appalled, couldn’t budge. One student actually argued with the artist, telling him that it was a fake, that the video was a hoax. But others thanked him, letting him know days later that they couldn’t stop thinking about it and went online to inform themselves.
"That’s the purpose," Beasley says. "It’s not about whether or not you enjoy it. I still don’t. But if it leads you to research what’s happening and who it happened to, that’s important."
He understands that his work can be taken as political, but says it’s definitely open for interpretation. "In reaction, someone could say, ‘We need to spread democracy,’ and someone else could say, ‘We need to bomb them.’ I just wanted people to develop their own opinions. It was a piece for the forgotten. I thought of it as more of a sensual work. You rely on your ears for the experience, and you just have to hear it once to draw out the emotion for a lasting effect."
Beasley’s work may be more blatant than Kerbaj’s, but they both rely on intuition, rather than intellect, for their potency. Kerbaj has received outstanding feedback on his blog because there’s very little propaganda that shouts all the answers. (Although, once, he writes: "I thank you all, especially the Israelis, Germans, English and American people who have the balls to refuse what they are told they should do by their government."). Instead, his rants are more often along the lines of this transcription of a conversation with friends: "blablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablablabla fuck this war blablablablablablablablablablablablablablabla"
Kerbaj asks his fellow bloggers, more than 11,000 citizens worldwide, to pass along his message. He appreciates the absurdity of any attempt to ignore the truth: "Thank you for your support and for spreading the message. Keep doing so please. With a little bit of luck it will end up on Condoleezza Rice’s desktop. I know it won’t stop the war, but I am sure at least that she’ll ask me to do her portrait."
Mazen Kerbaj’s blog is at mazenkerblog.blogspot.com. Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to