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Space of Refuge - Baqa'a Camp, Jordan

‘Space of Refuge’ is an exhibition/spatial installation which emerged out of a PhD research currently being conducted by Samar Maqusi at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). The installation looks at the spatial production and subsequent evolution of Palestinian refugee camps, with particular focus upon unofficial acts of ‘spatial violation’ that have emerged because of the increasingly protracted nature of the refugee situation, with no sign of any political resolution to a condition that has existed since the 1950s. The work also analyses the ambiguities and stigmas that can be found in the societal context in which these camps exist; these stem from political and economic unrest, and result in even greater socio-spatial marginalization. In specific terms, the installation superimposes two scales within Baqa’a camp in Jordan and Burj el-Barajneh camp in Lebanon, and compresses them spatially within the parameter of 100m2 (this being the UN’s official standard for individual housing plots within the camps). In doing so, the exhibition reveals how each group of refugees in both countries has come to adopt a very different method of spatial production and to engage in very different forms of spatial violation.

The exhibition builds a spatial archive of Palestine camps in the different host countries and develops a language in which to share it with other refugee camps in the form of Spatial Installations and Exhibitions. This would become the forum in which knowledge and history between refugee camps are shared and exchanged, something I call ‘transfer of knowledge and space’. Considering the precariousness of the Palestinian refugee camps, and the problem of addressing political aspects overtly inside these camps, the installation instead expresses its ideas through architectural forms and multi-media formats (including film and photography) in order to tackle critical issues, always with the aim of creating a more democratic form of dialogue that can hopefully transcend socio-political barriers.

‘Space of Refuge’ is thus conceived as being a genuinely hybrid ‘third space’ that emerges out of the counter-positioning of the two existing ones in the two refugee camps, and in doing so it allows for increased fluidity and transparency.

Exhibition Site:
The exhibition was installed in Baqa’a camp, in Jordan within one of the few remaining 'active' public buildings in the camp, commonly referred to as Jami’yeh, meaning a public association. As the concept was to overlap two camp spaces/scales, the Jami’yeh itself was the fist space/scale illustrating Baqa’a camp, and the spatial installation was the second space/scale illustrating Burj el Barajneh camp. By doing so, the superimposition would reveal the spatial similarities and differences of these two camps/scales, and produce a dialogue on spatial politics in the Palestine camp, through the act of space-making and scale-making.

Building Process & Team:
An overwhelming number of volunteers, of all ages, approached us and asked to be a part of the exhibition. Due to this positive out-turn, a core volunteer group was established, yet we decided to keep the exhibition-space door open throughout the building process for anyone interested in helping and producing the art installation with us. What resulted was a collective forum which brought together refugees from all strata, and volunteers from different parts of the world (London, Italy, Lebanon, USA, Jordan) to work together in designing and producing an art installation that can best communicate the history and story of refugee lives and spaces. What was unique in this process is that because we all collaborated in ‘space-making’ which is the most common skill found amongst refugees, we instantly shared a common language which allowed us to feel equal and connected, yet at the same time, it provided the space for us to also share our differences and exchange our stories.

In addition, 90% of the exhibition material was either bought or rented from the camp itself, and all equipment used in building the exhibition and installation was rented from the camp shops or borrowed from the refugees themselves. The material that was bought has been stored to be re-used in future installations.

The Installation:
‘Space of Refuge’ consisted of 3 main installations, each addressing a different spatial issue within the camp’s history, yet all coming together to perform as one continuous spatial journey.

1.The Pathway:
A spatial installation sized 3m wide X 4m long was built on an existing pathway, next to the Jami’yeh building. The concept stemmed out of overlapping 2 camp scales, an exiting one in Baqa’a camp (being the pathway itself) with a scale from Burj el Barajneh camp (by re-creating a pathway within the scale of Burj el Barajneh camp). By building an installation in an everyday space like this pathway which is used throughout the day and night, we allowed the installation to take a life of its own, one that is re-shaped by opening it up for everyday use by refugees.
2.The Room:
Over 200 photographs, collected from historical archives, as well as my own photographs over the last 2 years were exhibited on the ground floor of the Jami’yeh building. The photographs, displaced as a chronological order from inception until today, were hung on strings by wooden clips, adopting a traditional form of hanging clothes in the camp, which still exists today. This form allowed the visitors to walk through the room in a more intimate manner, providing a dynamic, familiar space for discussion and emotional association.
3.The Roof:
Another spatial installation was created on the roof of the Jami’yeh building, which was a continuation of the pathway installation. An empty roof with high walls, 10mX10m (100m2 open room) was transformed into a life-sized physical model based on a section taken from Burj el Barajneh camp in Lebanon. Again, the installation was meant to overlap 2 camp scales, yet here it covered a 100m2 area which was the original size of refugee plots distributed at the inception of the camp.
Visitors were able to walk through a maze-like installation (based on real dimensions from Burj el Barajneh camp), to allow the refugees of Baqa’a camp to learn about other camp-spaces which emerged out of the same crisis, and negotiate the reasons why two refugee camps can be so spatially different, yet so culturally and historically alike.
An overwhelming sentiment which was re-iterated by refugees over and over, was that they felt they were able to visit another camp without having to leave their own.

The language of art and artistic installations are rarely produced inside the camp, let alone, exhibited inside the camp. Therefore, the challenge was to create a new approach to art-making and exhibiting which would be completely based on knowledge and information acquired from the camp, and later re-created artistically inside the camp with the complete collaboration between us, as researchers, architects, artists and volunteers, and the refugees.
This was our leading philosophy, and it is what allowed us to remain grounded as artists and designers, to be able to produce a unique installation and forum of knowledge-exchange inside the camp, and later re-interpret it in other camp-spaces in the Near East.

The success of the installation was confirmed during the 3-day official opening of the exhibition, as we saw refugees, those who volunteered and others who were in and out during the building process guiding their friends and other refugee visitors through the exhibition and installation and explaining what they felt and interpreted to be the aim and philosophy behind this work. This is where we felt a new, and desperately needed collective was being born inside the camp. A collective translated into a spatial dialogue.

Also published here: http://www.catalyticaction.org/all-project-list/space-of-refuge/