Following the Wires: sensing socio-material practices of everyday electricity supply in post-conflict Greater Beirut
The research explores the consequences of conflicts on electricity infrastructures in Greater Beirut. The impacts of conflict on electricity services have affected the city since the beginning of the civil war and forced household to adopt different strategies to maintain electricity services to their homes and businesses. Moreover, informal systems and networks of electricity provision have profoundly altered the urban environment: electricity cables, generators and fuse boxes are now a ubiquitous element of the cityscape. The need and efforts to gain access to electricity and to secure stable supply have become part of everyday life and led to new practices and ways of living.
The project will ground the electricity cables along the lives of the persons and families it connects. By telling the story of the electricity infrastructure and the everyday responses to its failures, the project aims to make sense of the lived and material legacy of the conflict. Emphasising the importance of basic infrastructures, the project uses the synthetic power of video, together with ethnographic and sociological accounts, to show through the voices and buildings of Beirut how conflicts shape cities. The work involves formal and informal interviews with residents and stakeholders in Lebanon, biographic accounts and participant observation to capture the everyday experiences of living with power outages in the city and the different strategies adopted to maintain electricity services.
In the early 1960s, a programme for universalisation of services and infrastructure - including electricity - began in Lebanon, spearheaded by the then president Fouad Chehab, culminating in the creation of Électricité du Liban in 1964. Since then, violence and political unrest have upset that effort and reversed the trend, resulting in the debilitation of services and the prevalence of power outages and elongated blackouts. The following years of reconstruction and electricity network management have added new layers of spatial and social differentiation. Further attacks on power plants and the resulting damage of the electricity grid from the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict further diminished the capacity of power production, exacerbating the situation at the national and urban scale. The aggravation of the already tensed conditions of supply makes it compulsory for households to rely on alternative means of provision. Therefore, the research project aims to show how the these disruptions reveal the social, political and sectarian fragmentation caused by conflicts over the years.
This project will use innovative visual methods and combine insights from sociology and anthropology to follow the wires that crisscross the skyline and buildings of Beirut's neighbourhoods. In doing so the project will make visible the impacts of electricity disruption on everyday lives. The electricity infrastructure, and the responses to its failures, will serve as an analytical lens to make sense of the lived and material legacy of the conflicts that have affected Greater Beirut. The uneven supply of urban services is a major dimension of post-conflict cities in Lebanon but, as Verdeil suggests, 'it is a reality which is under-researched' (2009). Whilst infrastructures are usually 'invisible' (Star and Bowker, 2006), the inadequacy of the electricity services in the country, the resulting power outages and the perceived failure by the State makes salient the material and institutional elements of this infrastructure. In this way, the focus on electricity provides a useful heuristic for understanding conflict as lived, situating it among the socio-material entanglements that articulate our actions (Latour, 2005).
The study will:
Explore how energy infrastructures are revealing of the obduracy of conflict and its changing dynamics;
Investigate informal electricity supply as revealing of the dynamic between State and non-State actors in post-conflict contexts;
Visualise the impact of energy disruptions on everyday life and on the urban environment in order to assess the role of communities in negotiating the direct and indirect impact of conflict.
This will be accomplished through an experimental, innovative and interdisciplinary research approach that mobilises perceptual, material and social structures. The project combines:
Sociological accounts of technology that draw attention to the social and material aspects of everyday life mediated through electricity services and their lack thereof. This will provide both a background and an analysis of the context where the social and the material interact.
Anthropological methods and theory to explore the social and political dimensions of electricity supply through the everyday realities and experiences of research participants.
Applied visual methods to capture perceptual responses to disrupted electricity services and their impact on the urban environment.
Each methodological and disciplinary approach will influence the others. Sociological accounts of interactions with energy infrastructures will direct the eye of the camera, whilst this in return will capture ways of doing that will inform ethnographic observations. The latter will then feed back into rethinking the overall relation between socio-material structures, post-conflict politics and urban spaces. The project emphasises the synthetic power of visual practice to follow the wires that join the sensorial, perceptual and material structures of electricity disruption in post-conflict Beirut. Visual practice will be an integral part of the research process and will inform from the outset questions of research design, measurement, data collection and analysis, communication. This project proposes an interdisciplinary provocation to literally follow the wires of electricity in order to navigate the everyday cityscape in post-conflict Beirut.
The project will enable knowledge transfer between academic & non-academic constituencies. In particular academics will be offered a detailed account of how communities respond to energy disruptions in post-conflict contexts. Non-academics will be able to use the analytical insights to organise responses and devise new policies. The documentary film provides an opportunity for under-represented people to share their stories, contributing to the conversation on the impact of power outages on Greater Beirut. It aims to solicit new forms of grassroots organisations among communities affected by electricity services. In addition it will provide international organisations with a deeper understanding of the everyday problems that people face in post-conflict situations and a platform to engage with energy infrastructure in post-conflict situations.
Dissemination will also include:
Jointly authored academic papers.
An exhibition to elicit experiences of living with power cuts.
An interactive application that allows for a broader presentation of content
Key stakeholders and beneficiaries
1. Affected Communities: The research will allow affected populations living in Greater Beirut to communicate their concerns and expectations to policymakers, civil society groups and corporations.
2. Governmental institutions and the private sector: Research findings will be placed to influence political debates, and to make specific policy recommendations to government and the private sector on how local concerns can be integrated into the planning and realisation of new energy infrastructures.
3. Civil society and NGOs: the results will complement existing research by NGOs and action groups and will help them to identify and protect the needs of affected communities.
4. International organisations and corporations: These beneficiaries will be able to use the project's findings when planning investments on energy infrastructures in Lebanon, when designing programmes to alleviate the effects of conflicts on everyday lives, and when consulting with policymakers.