American University of Beirut

Party in the Sky: The Photo-DJ Lucien-Samaha

This exhibition brings to the attention of the public the activities of the Lebanese/American photographer, artist, traveler, archivist, and DJ Lucien Samaha (b. 1958). From his many long- and short-term occupations (i.e. as flight attendant, archivist and database designer/publisher of his personal lifetime collection of analog and digital photographs,  nightlife paparazzo and fashion photographer) we decided to focus on one of his gigs in New York City.

From the second half of the 1990s until the second week of September 2001, Samaha DJed on the top floors of one of the “Twin Towers" of the original World Trade Center (1973-2001). He was known on the upper floors of WTC's Tower One, or the North Tower, as DJ MondoLucien, and sometimes as Lucien the Loungecore DJ. His parties ran every Wednesday night at a bar called the Greatest Bar on Earth, in the restaurant complex Windows on the World located on the 107th floor. The party was originally launched as “StratoLounge," but then in 1997 Samaha renamed it “Mondo-107" (Mondo was the DJ moniker adopted after a trip to a CD store in Roppongi, Tokyo which had a section called “Mondo Suburbia," and 107 was the floor number in the North Tower as well as an echo of “Agent 007"). Nightlife reviewers had mixed opinions about the Mondo-107 party, but regardless of the reviews, the fact remained that even though his party may or may not have been the “best" or “greatest" in New York, it was certainly the “highest," not only in the City but—at that time—on Earth. It was a “Party in the Sky," as Lucien once described it.

The exhibition presents several galleries with photographs, and videos made by Samaha from his DJ perch, as well as a few GIFs made after September 11, 2001. ​The PDF publication offers an expanded version of this text accompanied by photographs and videos from those days. It also brings into discussion several transitions and splits in Samaha's personal and our contemporary history in the years prior and subsequent to September 11, 2001. It is an exhibition about various transitions: from analogue to digital photography, from the Twin Towers as place of nightlife entertainment to “ground zero" of terror, from national to transnational economy and culture, and finally, from the American 9/11 to the Lebanese 8/4.

The project was initiated in 2019, as part of Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut. It was first conceived as the Galleries' response to the main theme at CASAR for that year, “Arts in the Americas," which encouraged participants to think about “America" not only in singular terms, for example as the undisputed leader in post-WWII geopolitics, economics, and culture, but also in more plural if not pluralistic terms, and interactions with the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. AUB Art Galleries proposed the project “Party in the Sky," offering it as another perspective on the cultural and political relations and dimensions in the connections  between the “Americas" and the “Middle East." Samaha's biography, and his various roles as artist, traveler, archivist, photographer, and entertainer on the top of World Trade Center, added nuance to much-told stories, and addressed from another perspective the complex ties between the United States and the Middle East, including Lebanon. It seemed to hold out the possibility of a reconciliation or at least a negotiation between so many problematic categories of contemporary global art, culture, politics, and life.

The CASAR series was canceled due to the economic, political, and public health crises in Lebanon following the year 2019. The ongoing economic crisis and later global pandemic brought Lebanon to a standstill, including many planned cultural, academic, and economic activities. AUB Art Galleries decided to continue online the CASAR-tailored response to the “Arts in the Americas" project, due to a range of symbolic associations latent at this particular historical moment in this topic. It is not only that this year marks the twenty-year anniversary of New York City's 9/11 terrorist attacks, but also that this anniversary happens in very close proximity to Beirut's own 8/4 (often described as “Lebanon's nine-eleven," referring to the disastrous date in August 2020). The partial destruction of the city of Beirut resulting from the improper storage of amm​onium nitrate transformed important areas and institutions of the city from ground zero of “cultural activities" in the Middle East into ground zero as a “site of devastating disaster and violent attack." It was the second time that Samaha had witnessed such a social, cultural and semantic transformation, since the one twenty years ago in lower Manhattan. Many of Beirut's architectural monuments, from the Ottoman and French Mandate periods, as well as cultural sites in the neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar-Mikhaël—including the Arab Image Foundation for which Samaha had been among its early members—were devastated or seriously affected by the explosion in the port. It is what can be recovered from these various explosions, shifts, and transitions that this project aims to share with its audiences. 

Octavian Esanu
AUB Art Galleries

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