Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Artist Tania El Khoury shares powerful family memoirs in ‘Cultural Exchange Rate’

Courtesy of Maria Baranova

Growing up hearing her family’s stories of living in Akkar, a border village between Lebanon and Syria, inspired artist Tania El Khoury to save these memories through interviews with her late grandmother and turn them into art. 

El Khoury’s family discovery became something bigger when she was commissioned to create “Cultural Exchange Rate,” an interactive piece reflecting her family’s experiences of war survival, currency collection, a brief migration to Mexico and an overarching relationship with the national border. 

After making its way through various countries, including Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates, “Cultural Exchange Rate” is now trekking across the U.S. In a partnership with Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox, El Khoury’s work is visiting Austin. TPA and the 2024 Fusebox Festival will present “Cultural Exchange Rate” in the Bass Concert Hall rehearsal room from April 10-14.

“The partnership is designed to support and share projects that are adventurous,” said Ron Berry, executive and co-artistic director at Fusebox. “They’re projects that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see if you’re living in Central Texas.”

Bianca Hooi, TPA’s executive and artistic project manager, saw the show in New York. Hooi said she bonded with the 10-person group she entered the exhibit with.

“Afterwards, the group spilled into the New York street and stood there. (We) all wanted to digest together what we had just experienced,” Hooi said. “It’s deeply intimate. … Tania is not even in the room, … but you still feel connected to her when you leave.”

El Khoury said that while her work focuses on audience interactivity and political potential, she tries not to predetermine how the work will impact viewers.

“I create an environment and tools for people to be impacted. (It’s) about immersing yourself in the work and listening from the body,” El Khoury said. “What I take from this piece is the fact that people find different ways to survive, and it’s quite remarkable.”

Petra Abousleiman, a friend of El Khoury’s and production designer on “Cultural Exchange Rate” said that while she always loves working with El Khoury, this project pushes her to think critically about society and her own experiences.

“I (love) art that not just moves you emotionally, but intellectually,” Abousleiman said. “It forces you to think things over and to relate to it — not just on an individual scale, but on a communal scale. This piece does that.”

El Khoury said the piece is told in snippets through interactive vaults containing different mediums: sound, objects, videos, smells or a combination of those four. Each viewer will experience a different order of the story.

“I created this puzzle of different stories from different places with personal archive interviews and national archives,” El Khoury said. “It’s a multi-sensory piece that tells the story (in a non-linear way).”

Abousleiman said the non-linear and multi-sensory approach allows viewers to create their own experience, unique from anyone else who views the same work.

“When you ask (the audience) to touch things, to smell them, to open them, their senses are heightened. … They become curious, wanting to see what else it is that they might miss,” Abousleiman said. “They can start weaving their own stories, which is beautiful.”

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