One of the first television images of Bahrain was taken in the 1950s by the BBC, at a time when British influence in the Gulf region was still omnipresent. The images that made it to the English living rooms were of an exotic orient: dhow boats docked in a port, the mysterious alleyways of the Suq and Arabs drinking tea. Although the images were quite dreamy in nature, the subject matter was less so. The bow-tied news anchor was reporting on growing discontent in Bahrain over the subject of an English advisor named Charles Belgrave, who they believed was serving British interests, in the Islands.
In the 1970s, television broadcasts of Bahrain revolve largely around the oil infrastructure in the southern desert region along with the modernization this new industry brings with it. The oil fields attracted foreign workers who live in enclosed pocket communities in the desert.
Bahrain looks a bit like Kent complete with white picket-fence, shaded loggia and golf course- albeit on sand instead of green.
In 1976, it’s aboard the Concorde that you land in Bahrain. You discover the airport, and its accompanying emblems of modernization – international hotel chains built in the prevalent International Style of the time, gas stations and modern roads. For the French and British television stations, it is also the occasion to take a closer look at this curious small archipelago that welcomes the eastbound inaugural flight of this supersonic plane. That was at a time when the world was still round, and the Islands still appeared to be an exotic land filled with fresh water springs, rural farms and maze-like cities.
On this occasion, you also catch a glimpse of the workings of politics and society through the chandelier-clad interiors of a royal palace.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth arrives by ship in 1979, and you get introduced by the same occasion to the Mina Salman Port, the first of its kind in the gulf region. A visit from Margret Thatcher in 1988, takes you from the red carpet of the airport to the interior of a royal palace, giving you another peak into the corridors of formalities and protocol – you also steal an outside view of the Gudaibiya Palace.
In 1966, the signs of sectarian conflict and political discontent make it onto international news channel. News reporters bring images of graffiti-clad walls and derelict neighborhoods and villages, but also a panoramic view of the newly inaugurated Saudi-Bahrain causeway, the first high-rises and snapshots of Bahraini night life.
In 2004, Formula One is in Bahrain — images of Bahrain and its desert race track are splashed across all major news channels for a few seconds a year; the desert hinterland is back as the dominant imagery of the story. Michael Jackson sets home in Bahrain in 2005, and his spontaneous foray to a mall makes it a tabloid story. Malls had just landed in Bahrain, along with large real estate projects and glass towers. For much of the noughties, this will be the background of the news – a regional ambition to move beyond an oil based economy. Images of Bahrain resemble those of Dubai and Qatar nearby.
Glossy images, which are in stark contrast to the ones that will make a spectacular foray onto news reports in mid-February 2011. Twin towers are replaced by large scale demonstration scenes and the graffiti-clad walls and derelict neighborhoods are back, as the backdrop of the story of an Arab Spring gone further east.
This latest change in background imagery is also accompanied by a dramatic change in the background of the landscape. The political events have been an assault on all senses, changing the smell, noise and sights of our surroundings. The urban fabric is an active witness to the social, political and religious fractions.
As opposed to the era leading to the 19th century, where travelers brought back mostly romanticized images of the faraway, today we mostly base our imaginary of remote and un-iconic landscapes through their appearance as background imagery in the media. Sometimes accidental, at other moments intentional, promotional and neatly framed these fragments of a landscape are nonetheless unconsciously stored, in the mysterious workings of our imagination. Their spontaneous appearance in international media, while offering only a rather accidental reading of local history, contribute to the creation of a collective urban imagery which travels far beyond the local, becoming the first common ground between the Islands and the World.
The exhibition design has been conducted by Matilde Cassani, Stefano Tropea and Francesco Librizzi. The exhibition installation consists of five projections of background imagery from Bahrain projected in simultaneous Venetian time. By isolating scenery which is normally supplemented by a news anchor, a news bar and sound commentary — the installation seeks to bring to the foreground what normally looms in the background. Through seemingly random scenes of Bahraini urban landscape, the installation evokes our construction of an imaginary of remote urban landscapes through their fragmented appearance in the media and in our living rooms.