Review: Tania El Khoury’s ‘Cultural Exchange Rate’ Tells a Living Tale of Exile and Migration

Audience members are immersed in the sounds, sights and artifacts of lost and rediscovered family, border crossings and survival.

People gather around open and closed silver lockers in a foreboding warehouse-like space
Tania El Khoury’s “Cultural Exchange Rate” at The Invisible Dog (2024). Photo: Argenis Apolinario

The lights have been dimmed. On the ground floor of the Invisible Dog, benches, a coat rack, a table, a chandelier and stacked lockers arranged in an L-shape have been tightly organized and greet us in an otherwise large space that fades into darkness. The chandelier contrasts with the industrial make of the Boerum Hill building, exuding an uncanniness that echoes throughout the performance’s theme. This is the New York City premiere set of Tania El Khoury’s “Cultural Exchange Rate,” which engages with identity, belonging and exile.

Sets of numbered keys are handed to each participant, of which there are fewer than ten on the night I join. Matched to each of these keys are lockers that open the doors to an archival treasure hunt that unfolds in no particular order. Upon opening the lockers, we insert our heads through mesh barriers to discover self-contained snapshots of El Khoury’s family memoirs, narrated by voice or video by the artist and enhanced by atmospheric decor. One of the lockers includes a collage of ID cards, another a dessert platter, fairy lights and fragrant olive oil soap. Each of these elements supports the locker’s divulged secrets. For example, the olive oil soap is a physical memento of El Khoury’s grandmother’s scent and the intimate bond the two women developed when her grandmother allowed El Khoury to comb her hair.

Their closeness forms the foundation of the environment that generates El Khoury’s abundant storytelling. In “Culture Exchange Rate,” the artist retraces in these locker vignettes her family’s journey of displacement and exile, from the late 19th-century migration from the Levant to the New World to the devastating effects of Lebanon’s current economic collapse via many wars. Her home village, situated at today’s border between northern Lebanon and Syria encapsulates in-betweenness and fluidity: When does a border indicate an end, rather than a beginning? And fundamentally, who gets to decide?

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The performance metaphorically and physically draws us into the many strands of a multifaceted quest: investigating traces of relatives in Mexico while seeking dual citizenship as an escape route from Lebanon, questioning the affective and relational nature of currency in a country where the Lebanese lira has lost more than 90% of its value in 2023, and interrogating proximity and transmission as a mode of exchange between family members and strangers.

The lockers lend themselves to this archival, forensic probe, as the participants become witnesses and associates to El Khoury’s retelling. We sometimes need to kneel or raise our toes; we peek inside allegorical windows and open reconstituted vaults. The way the audience moves in this maze evokes the ruminations of the mind, unreliable and scattered memory, and how historical discontinuities affect our ability to tell a linear story from beginning to end. There is no center, no resolution, as we jump from one snippet of personal history to the next, creating an impression of superimposed narratives that all co-exist at once.

In one of these, El Khoury, who lives between Beirut and London, visits her home village and meditates on the river that now separates Lebanon from Syria—a material border that did not exist at the time of her grandmother’s youth. The idea and reality of a border are a departure point from which to excavate her family’s rhizomatic experience of displacement and exile, which is often revealed through the memories of women: her grandmother fleeing the Lebanese Civil War and facing soldiers or her ancestor who married in Mexico and returned to Lebanon penniless with children in tow some 100 years ago. When El Khoury becomes a mother herself, concerns of identity and survival take on new existential meanings. Her Palestinian-Lebanese daughter won’t be able to carry either of her parents’ nationalities. Palestinians remain stateless while Lebanese mothers are not allowed to pass down their nationalities to their children (only fathers do). And so, in that crevice, El Khoury suggests a tension between the need to transform and the need to preserve.

This is evidenced in one of the vignettes which recalls El Khoury’s visit to Mexican archives searching for her ancestor’s birth certificate. The query yields no results, which leaves El Khoury desperate as dozens of family members await news on a WhatsApp group, her hopeful updates that they may soon have a future in Mexico by claiming direct descendency and citizenship. She tries various spellings in vain, and that lack of results awakens feelings of repeated erasure. Where is her ancestor—who exists in the family’s oral histories and appears on an immigration card but not in other official records—and where is El Khoury?

The artist is absent. The interactive and sensory performance is led by the participants themselves and as such, the border between performer and audience blurs. We don’t know what it feels like for El Khoury to have strangers scavenge through family memories in sounds, images, videos and artifacts. She isn’t there to witness. In some ways, that asymmetrical relationship reminds one that sees the “pain of others” as a semi-voyeuristic enterprise, an external gaze that Susan Sontag wrote about in her 2003 essayistic book on the aestheticization of suffering. How can one grapple with a sudden and shocking economic collapse that sees savings and pensions vanish nearly overnight, or that migration, far from being an entrepreneurial desire, is a painful necessity to survive? Are we lusting at the victimization of El Khoury’s family and the ordeals that she and her family go through?

Far from it. For all the serious evocations of her work, El Khoury introduces humor when least expected and chooses narrative devices that amplify agency and voice. Very much in charge of having orchestrated our meandering, she discloses what she wants and keeps us suspended on an ending that never comes. In that, El Khoury channels the art of hakawatis, the bards of the Levant who used to tell stories and stories on end in cafes and other semi-public places in their long robes and modulated accents, keeping their audience on edge. Hakawatis used to play a critical role in society as guardians of tales and transmission, popularizing folk stories into shared cultural references while cementing social bonds. Stories told by an experienced hakawati both entertained and educated. Like them, El Khoury peels off layers of memoirs to unveil tales of resistance and empowerment etched in the politics of displacement.

Premiered in the Fisher Center’s 2019 LAB Biennial: Where No Wall Remains, “Cultural Exchange Rate” debuted in New York City as part of the 2024 Under the Radar theater festival. El Khoury, who has received multiple distinctions including winning the 2017 ANTI Festival International Prize for Live Art and being awarded the 2019 Soros Art Fellowship, is currently an artist-in-residence at Bard. She co-founded the collective Dictaphone Group in Lebanon.

“I think about my work as producing knowledge that can contribute at a later point to an archive, but at the moment it’s concerned with the conversations that are happening right now in politics,” El Khoury told Art Papers in an interview concerning her practice. The artist worked on “Cultural Exchange Rate” for ten years, amassing interviews and archives until the materials developed into an idea for an art performance. While underpinned by a personal story of many ramifications, the performance does speak more broadly to an attempt to frame intergenerational trauma and healing through the right to narrate.

Review: Tania El Khoury’s ‘Cultural Exchange Rate’ Tells a Living Tale of Exile and Migration