Workshop XXIV, Rayyane Tabet, 11 May 2021

Rayyane Tabet studied Architecture at the Cooper Union, New York, and Fine Art at University of California, San Diego. He lives in Beirut and San Francisco. Born during the Lebanese Civil War in 1983 and growing up during the reconstruction process, he heard many stories that romanticised the economic stability that the country experienced before the conflict. This led him to eventually embark on a research journey into a unique object of enquiry: the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.

In February 1945 the US and Saudi Arabia had struck a deal, whereby Saudi Arabia was going to secure oil for the US and the US was going to provide political protection in return. At the time oil exported out of Saudi Arabia reached the Mediterranean through straits surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. The objective to get the oil out of Saudi Arabia in a faster and more secure manner thus led to the biggest American investment outside the US: the construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.

This pipeline was to connect Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea by land in a straight line through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestine. Following the UN Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, the pipeline was instead angled to the north, crossing Syria and ending in Lebanon. From 1950 to 1983, more than 50% of Saudi’s oil was exported through the Trans-Arabian Pipeline. Tapline, the joint venture of the US companies Chevron, Standard Oil and Texaco, created to manage the pipeline, had thousands of employees in headquarters around the world and created a new upwardly mobile social class, thus transforming the psyche of the Middle East.

Tabet carried out most of his research on the pipeline between 2007 and 2012, compiling archival material dispersed all over the world; interviewing former employees; visiting abandoned sites, and gaining exclusive access to the company’s offices in Beirut, sealed since they were abandoned with Tapline’s collapse in 1983. The resulting works, drawing on architectural and sculptural perspectives, were first shown in the exhibition The Shortest Distance Between Two Points at Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Beirut) in 2013. The iconic piece, Steel Rings, a scale remake of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, has since become an ongoing contextual project. Drawing on minimalism and conceptual art, the defunct pipeline is considered both as an infrastructure and a potential sculpture.

Tabet explores the potential of objects, particularly infrastructure which had witnessed the radical transformations of the region. Is it possible to tell the story of the region through its objects? If so, what will the story of the region be if it is told from the perspective of the pipeline – itself a physical manifestation of the changes to the borders?

These questions lead to an exploration of the pipeline’s formal and geometrical potential within the context of geopolitics. Mathematics was used as a universal language to facilitate communication amongst Tapline’s multilingual workforce, for example in a numbering system to express the geographical location of each pipeline segment. This reflects an abstraction from the land the pipeline was operating in and, Tabet speculates, may have played some role in the failure of the project. In geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but in geopolitics the shortest distance depends on the conditions in which you are working.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is more an invitation to think about the future rather than the past, a “foreshadowing mechanism” confronting us with unintelligible ruins to come.

Architecture I Lebanon I Trans-Arabian Pipeline I Saudi Arabia I Middle East I Geopolitics I Conflict I Infrastructure I Sculpture