THE SOCIAL IMPULSE: POLITICS, MEDIA AND ART AFTER THE ARAB UPISINGS
The relationship between politics, media and the visual arts for cultural practitioners living in the ‘Arab world’ has never been as urgent a topic for debate as it is now. At the present time, there is not so much a discussion among visual arts practitioners but rather a rampant desire by cultural brokers to create unsophisticated forums for so-called discussion of the Arab Spring. The ‘debate’, or lack thereof, can be construed as forming a one-dimensional history that is being written by groups, who, it has been argued, attempt to capitalize on market and cultural interest. Writers, curators and editors try to capture, for better or for worse, the genesis of ‘revolutionary art’ through canon-forming curatorial frames. These include private institutions such as Mona Said’s gallery in Cairo, the entire curatorial framework around the Shubbak festival in London and, of course, the numerous international film festivals from Rotterdam to Berlin whose curatorial programming included large film festival seasons around the theme of the Arab Spring.
At this point, I feel it is essential to divulge the elements of my identity that inform this particular reading of the situation. I am an Egyptian writer, film and media curator living in Britain. Raised and educated in the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, a sense of plurality has never been alien to me. I have spent the last few years writing about film and visual arts in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine, not necessarily because of any nationalistic impetus, but because I felt that many of the artists connected to these places were (and indeed still are) addressing meaningful theoretical questions through innovative strategies of execution that resonated in a way I could not find elsewhere. As a result of this personal interest, I am often asked to comment on cultural conditions not only in Egypt, but for the entire Arab world, and not merely from a visual arts or film perspective either. This expectation that I hold an identity–an ‘Arab’ identity that as a curator and a writer I have to perform – has been in equal measure both flattering and discomforting. Since the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, dozens of individuals and cultural producers have felt compelled to ask me not about my political feelings towards the uprisings, but rather, what effect I believe it will have on the visual arts of the Arab world, almost as if both issues could be theorized hand in hand.
It is an impossible question to answer, but it is one that I feel obliged to grapple with. What I am laying out here are my discursive thoughts, or sketches towards a discourse. Ultimately, what I am most interested in discussing is the social impulse generated by the interplay of politics, media, and the visual arts in the contemporary Arab world, and Egypt in particular. With this in mind, my aim is to discuss how technology’s socializing qualities might be able to shift generalizing cultural forms of categorization as it continues to advance, and set inter-disciplinary educational fields in motion.
I should begin by quoting Hassan Khan, one of the leading artists from Egypt to utilise new media technologies. In the autumn 2011 issue of Index journal, published by MACBA Barcelona, Khan precedes his own short story with some weighted words. He begins his narrative for ‘The first lesson I remember learning is that humiliation exists’, with:
‘A question lies behind the choice of title used here … The question is ironically the one that may be most expected at this moment–the one that, at this point in time, critics, curators and editors will ask artists who come from Egypt. The question has, of course, to do with how an artist, operating at a historical moment, deals with an event whose proportions and form defy all expectations. The question is usually followed by enquiries about whether your practice has changed following such events, if you feel that you have a new responsibility as an artist, if your understanding of art has changed.’
Khan insists that nothing has changed directly in terms of his conceptual, aesthetic and theoretical preoccupations or indeed in his choice of subjects. This is significant coming from an artist whose work has often revolved around issues of social communication, re-articulation and transformation through media, as evidenced in sound works such as DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK (2005). This is pertinent to my argument, because Khan’s processes of appropriation and re-inscription echo some of the common qualities of media appropriation that began in January 2011. As the curator Rasha Salti stated recently at a conversation during the 4th Marrakech Biennale, media has been the primary tool within the recent political revolts. Spectators of public dissidence, who may have begun their journey through the upheaval by watching mediated images, subsequently became involved with the movement through their own processes of media capturing–-documenting photographs and fashioning them into posters that they would re-present and distribute on both online and physical social networks.
The issue of media technology is crucial to this understanding; as Gilles Deleuze asserts, technology is a socializing force before it is a technical one. In terms of the visual arts and the Egyptian uprising, this created a grey area because one of the most famous early casualties of the struggle was the new media artist, Ahmed Basiony, who was shot by snipers on Tahrir Square. This brings me to a pivotal point in my argument, which concerns the role of new media art in Egypt and the region. While political activism and the impetus behind new media art may be mutually exclusive, they are bound by the idea of ‘open’ flows of democratization via digital communication technologies. Media-based art is derived from an art historical trajectory that has developed since the 1970s, potently evolving from the mid-1990s through to the millennium, and which saw the artist’s role transformed into that of a tinkerer or hacker, capable of cracking open the confines of insular capitalist hegemony and educational hierarchies. Media and .net artists from the likes of Electronic Disturbance Theater and Critical Art Ensemble to Heath Bunting, Zach Blas and JODI, have all in some way or other practiced civil disobedience either in real life or online.
From a political perspective, it is deeply poignant and significant that Basiony–the artist that subsequently represented Egypt at the 54th Venice Biennale–was known in Egypt for having utilized open source software not only in his own artwork, but also in his teaching, in public workshops, and through postgraduate study. This leads me to the question: could the relationship between the open source ideology in recent new media history and the proliferating ‘share’ culture of revolutionary dissidence have created this grey area whereby artists who work with new media as a resource from Egypt and the whole region are asked to comment or subscribe to an artistic interpretation of the Arab uprisings?
This is not to say that artists in Egypt and the Arab world are not interested in engaging explicitly with the subject matter, or that it cannot be presented in an intellectually engaging artistic capacity. In 2011, Hamza Serafi created a video art project entitled, The People Want…, an allegory of civil unrest in Egypt represented by popcorn kernels. Here, Serafi asserts that a certain ‘combination proved explosive, as people (kernel) who had to endure injustice (heat) committed over time, and their plight further expressed by the media (oil), … reached a point of no return (popcorn).’
The work was inspired by one of the artist’s friends, a protester who dubbed the pro-Mubarak regime ‘Hooligans … [being] fed Kentucky Fried Chicken Meals laced with 100 dollar bills’. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) operates on a number of different metaphorical levels here–an imperial one (American power and investment in the Mubarak regime), a geographic one (in that protestors used to meet at the KFC in Tahrir Square), and a literal one (in that KFC serves popcorn-style chicken). At the time, I found the implicit humour in the work refreshing, but this is not to say that all artists from the region should be expected to construct works of art that either literally or figuratively engage with the theme of revolution.
In the opening article in the October 2011 issue of the UAE-based journal Contemporary Practices, the French-Tunisian scholar Khadija Hamdi starts by suggesting that post-revolutionary art in Tunisia is an ‘engaged’ form of creative practice. Before long, she suggests that the term ‘engaged art’ is an essential and responsive movement to the oppressive former political regime. For me, this language of ‘the new dawn’ or ‘the new day’ is a dangerous one. It suggests that as artists, writers, curators, and ultimately citizens, all of our thinking and all of our belief systems should function in opposition to or in response to a fallen regime. What does this language or framing ask of artists? That revolution should be a unifying thematic device, akin to the Palestinian conflict or the Lebanese Civil War? Without hesitation, one can argue that this would be counter-intuitive if, indeed, the uprising was meant to unshackle artists from the binds of conforming to government regulation or censorship.
If we are to learn anything from the mobilizing rationale of the uprising, it is that technology is a force that can break down hierarchical boundaries. Socializing media works against forms of categorization that we have so often become accustomed to the frequent usage of collective ethnic terminology such as Arab Art, Chinese Art or Indonesian Art in the international art world. In his essay Geo-coding Contemporary Art?, Timo Kaabi-Linke criticizes these common labels as ideologically reductive catch-alls that deprive art of its universality. He then goes on to draw a potent correlation between this and our current socio-political condition, arguing that protestors from the Arab uprisings to the Occupy Wall Street movement (many of whom have come together initially through social media) are bound by no particular agenda or manifesto beyond the fact that that they no longer wish to tolerate exploitation. He goes on to argue that none of the protestors represents a particular sector (i.e., workers or students). This picture of differences that Kaabi-Linke attempts to draw is one that could be appropriated to our benefit – to break down geo-political systems, which attempt to set out a prescriptive schema for artists.
This is easier said than done, of course. The contemporary visual arts operate within a hierarchical structure of artists, art schools, academicians, curators, writers, and ultimately, collectors and philanthropists. Historical processes of selection, even from a Post-colonial position, continue to require that artists be framed within a curatorial context that is easily digestible and one that often accentuates difference. And while the act of fetishizing Orientalist stereotypes is no longer as unsophisticated as it used to be, a common set of rigid principles continues to be put forward. Namely, one can argue that both cinema and the visual arts in the Arab world continue to emphasize work that bears an Oriental aesthetic quality, coupled with both a critical and documentary sense of introspection from the artist, to illustrate that they are aware of their socio-political condition–examples of which could once be found in some of the large-scale paintings of Khaled Hafez and in the early work of Ghada Amer.
The subsequent reality is that many of the artists who live in Egypt and the Arab world in general end up a part of exhibitions with titles such as Taswir – Pictorial Mapping of Islam and Modernity (2009), a show that pioneering artist and educator Shady El Noshokaty occupied in Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, or Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East (2009) at the Saatchi Gallery in London, which many writers (myself included) have criticized at great length for its generic categorization. The polemic of the latter can easily be derived from its title, and its lead imagery– of Kader Attia’s Ghost (2007), which comprised aluminium sculptures of veiled women kneeling. This was complicated by its unclearly defined geographic expanse, and its lack of interpretation or material for further engagement. This form of curatorial framing is a persistent problem and can even be seen within the so-called East itself. For example, a new show at the Mori Art Museum in Japan entitled, Arab Express (2012), professes to bring new art and identity from the Arab world to Japan.
A question arises: who bears the burden? The artist can choose to refrain from participating in such exhibitions, but they subsequently risk fading into obscurity. With these issues still at the core of our intellectual processes of ‘curating’ so-called art in/from the Arab world, I believe that now is a critical moment for us to consider how the social impulses that have provoked such international interest in these artists are theorized, curated, exhibited, and re-appropriated for the world.
The most positive counter-activities are the grassroots, artist-led movements, educational and visual arts institutions, which exist locally and extend beyond such didacticism. Historically, this may not have been possible because contemporary art institutions in Egypt in particular have been shielded from public view and have been short of the visibility or the platforms that music, cinema or literature have held. Moreover, as Shady El Noshokaty noted when he co-founded The Media Art Workshop programme at Helwan University more than a decade ago, higher art education often lacked an infrastructure, both in terms of technical apparatus and, perhaps most importantly, because curricula were never fluid. Students were forced to study in what he dubbed ‘totalitarian’ systems, whereby they were unable to specialize in a particular media and were only awarded places at art colleges based on their grades, as opposed to artistic potential. Greater awareness, however, is growing with the rise of social networks (virtual and physical) throughout the entire region. Artists have now become agents in the ecology in which they operate, allowing a new generation free tools of access, as evidenced by the forthcoming launch of Shady El Noshokaty’s ASCII Foundation, Wael Shawky’s MASS Alexandria, and the ambitious Home Workspace programme led by Ashkal Alwan’s Christine Tohme in Beirut, Lebanon. Karaj: Beirut’s Media Lab in Experimental Arts, Architecture and Technology, Batroun Art Space in Lebanon, Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo, and the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, are all also worth significant mentions here.
With education comes knowledge and the vernacular of artistic independence, which will hopefully allow younger artists the artistic mobility to delineate their career trajectory more clearly. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has come to play a dual role in this grand scheme. It has shed a light on art spaces, whereby venues such as Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo has become a meeting space for individuals from many different walks of life to congregate, study and debate through their residencies, open talks, rehearsals, and Independent Study Program; yet at the same time, it has given international cultural brokers a knee-jerk position from which they can respond, theorize and canonize art produced by artists who bear a connection to the Arab world. When asked how she would advise artists to navigate the temptation of succumbing to this schema propagated by revolutionary dissidence, Sarah Rifky, former Curator at Townhouse and co-director of Beirut art intitiaitve in Cairo, noted that:
‘I think engaging other people’s curiosity is fine, so long as it’s not co-opting the current state of fluidity and attempts at conjugating a new political reality into a fixed form of spectacle. I can’t prescribe how anyone should ‘deal’ with this; perhaps the most important thing is a matter of questioning the impetus of questions, asking why people might want to engage [with artists], and how. Being critical, scrutinising, but also open and sincere.’
The art scene in the Arab world itself, however, continues to remain generative in different ways and extends beyond engaging with the curiosity of international cultural brokers, who are often interested in being part of ‘a conversation’ about endless hope and change. If anything positive has come out of this, it is the socializing quality of the media utilized both by artists and practitioners who collectively ‘share’ the multiplicity of voices, narratives, and histories present in the region. Still, the goal of cultural brokers should be to ensure that the narrative of revolution does not encroach on the numerous narratives that exist on the fringes. Local art scenes often rely on international exposure and funding to flourish, and as such we must continue to ensure that the narratives that we cling to or decide to develop are not ones that reduce artists to a further categorical specificity, but which allow a more meaningful sedimentary dialogue to come to fruition.