This was self-published as an addendum to a small contemporary art publication accompanying the exhibition Propaganda by Monuments, curated by me and Clare Butcher in January 2011. The exhibition, being due to open on 30th January, was delayed by the uprising.
Upon returning to work as things calmed down, CIC entered a sort of freeze-frame, of how to respond as an institution, as a space serving and hosting cultural producers, and as a staff body of seven human workers. Propaganda by Monuments, by pure coincidence, seemed to address some of the longer-term questions we anticipated might arise in the aftermath of what was unfolding in the streets around us: what happens when the dust settles, whose visions do you import or hearken back to when faced with the task of reconstructing society.
But we were already uneasy about taking up those connections so conveniently. We felt that the artworks within did not ‘need’ a revolution to prove their relevance; also we didn’t want to squeeze cultural capital out of a revolution. But it was there, and we went ahead in due course, six weeks late.
We agonised over a short text that could go into our publication. The below is what resulted. I’ve really hesitated to post this, as it is so out of time. It’s a reminder of a set of thoughts from then and I’m not sure what it means now, but I want to flag it.
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Cairo, February 2011
I had understood protest within certain parameters, all of them relatively limited – my previous experience encompassed a small spectrum in the UK. This experience was usually underpinned by the feeling that, if protest never changes things, it exists as a simplistic, physically undeniable, necessary form of communication within civil society, at the fringes of the category of acceptable social acts, supplementary to all other forms of communication. Simple and straightforward demands are made from mouth A to ear B.
In this vein, the demands of the Egyptian revolution have been consistent, straightforward, unequivocally expressed, and widely circulated. But demands are not the only way a revolution speaks, in fact,demands speak excessively clearly so that other meanings – all the modes of expression and behavioural patterns between a corrupt state and its oppressed population – may be dissolved. It is this dissolution, and what happens in Tahrir Square, that I would like to talk about. This text, which I have revised every day since some first notes on 26th January, and became ‘something’ that we could use on maybe the twelfth day of the sit-in. But the temporal, performative nature of the daily redrafting process described above, to find a stable way of discussing the situation we were in, expresses the ungraspable nature of those times that were changing so fast, of definitions that reworked themselves in every encounter.
In an analysis of a poem by Baudelaire, in which the instant but fleeting desire for a woman is expressed in dramatic contrasts, Svetlana Boym says:
The time of happiness is like a time of revolution, an ecstatic modern present. For Baudelaire, the chance of happiness is revealed in a flash, and the rest of the poem is a nostalgia for what could have been; it is not a nostalgia for an ideal past, but for the present perfect and its lost potential. (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 2001)
That is, a nostalgia for the multitude of possible futures that emerge and change shape. For those who have lived from instant to instant in Tahrir Square and other flashpoints of the Egyptian revolution, to describe it is to tarnish its main force: its instantenaeity, the ability for the times to change. This is a precious sensation for a country trapped for thirty years in a system where change came mostly through a kind of slow, infrastructural osteoporosis. ‘The present perfect and its lost potential’ is the exhausting but exhilarating experience of Tahrir, an ideological space that has changed character, purpose and meaning so chameleonically in the last month that its true essence can no longer be straightforwardly captured or memorialised.
The below quote is the translated voiceover of Nadine Khan’s short video in which her feet are filmed on a walk towards Tahrir during the sit-in:
I will speak of the revolution. Consider this moment. Many victories, yes, but there remains much more before its completion. A great moment for new, different works, not possible before. Yet the power of Tahrir is that it cannot be owned or framed. So why should I frame it? […] The day that we feel the Square has really won. When the opportunity of change has become a reality. When achievements are not just commodities. I think now I would rather not speak of the revolution. (I Will Speak Of The Revolution, Nadine Khan 2011, Translation by Hassan Khan)
Throughout the video, rather than representing the space, Khan only shows walking feet; upon arrival in Tahrir, a brief pan upwards reveals the iconic ministry building of the Mugamma that dominates the edge of Tahrir, flashing into the image, before a clear blue sky. Khan’s reluctance to make finalised description of this space before the revolution’s demands are truly met, are mirrored by a growing sentiment amongst Egyptian cultural producers that any attempt to do so can only be read as an act of appropriation or opportunism. To fix the meaning of this space would be be to betray a revolution that needs things to change and move.
I had tried, one day of the sit-in, to fix the space. I believed that maybe, instead of the classical markers of numbers and classes of people, or the size of the space, or transcripts of speeches and chants – I decided that maybe a descriptive list of the distinct social practices of the square might be more effective. So I made an exhaustive list, from the free food to the ad hoc performance art, to the pools of mud used for dousing tear gas canisters, to the stacks of broken pavement stored up behind the barricades. Unfortunately, the list kept growing and things kept redefining themselves. The performance art turned into staged actions with a PA system, stage, and signup list; the stone supply was formed into written messages on the floor; the teargas pools turned into a washing area for before prayer. And so, and so. It was unweildy and my list kept growing and changing, until it became a chronicle of its own. It also became necessary to mention what was not happening: no bribe to get your ordinary rights out of police and government officials; no surveillance by the state; no deferral to those richer, whiter, maler.
This sort of list, though, still was not expressing things beyond a series of ‘inspiring anecdotes’, the sort of thing that could later be instrumentalised in the well-intentioned but ultimately problematic interests of ‘proving’ to a conservative western media audience about the ability of free Egyptians to self-govern, a notion that should never have been in doubt in the first place.
The question that remains is, how then to commemorate the occupation of spaces like Tahrir Square? What is it to grab ‘the potential of the present perfect’ without producing a mythology of protest, or a series of anecdotes, or describing it as a symbolic space rather than the actual complex social, militant and psychological force it is? As cultural producers are sensing, the key may not be in wholeness of representation, which fixes and sustains meanings and which implicitly ‘completes’ the event – but in transmission. A process that moves meanings in time and space and reconstitutes them through practice. Nothing less, then, than new revolutions in new places.
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I’m just not sure how to relate this to now.* Yet I know that not attaching this writing to the now leaves it only a form of nostalgia in itself, leaving the cultural ‘object’ of the revolution-as-18-days untouched. Which is bad because unlike the events themselves, that object is a political tool (created in part, I believe, by the cultural industries). It now is proof of its own argument about narrative. However the reminder, that revolution might be only retold through more revolution, is important to me.
How to bring this into now? Or more importantly – how to bring all those documents into the now? After all, we had to make them. Archiving and faithful narrative is important. But narrative culture made with revolutionary intentions are not just appropriated into politics. They are politics, because like it or not this is a genre. In this scenario, this whole genre is a ghost of the events themselves, one which potentially acts against them rather than bringing their vividness forward. Vivid=to live. I would almost say this is my definition of good art, but that’s probably another essay, and a tough one as I mostly failed to put that forward through my last exhibition.
In Peter Watkins’ work La Commune Paris 1871, which is viewable now as a film, a group of Parisians were invited to re-read the history of the Paris commune and to re-tell the story themselves. In a really bad set in a warehouse that breaks the fourth wall constantly. As a director, Watkins certainly doesn’t escape the hierarchical problems he purports to undo, but it’s a valiant attempt, and so far this was enough**. The six hours of black and white, kind of dry, worthy footage, nonetheless moved me like no other film. The people were not narrating a revolution, the revolution was being born in their souls. Like all revolution it was naive, full of joyous liberatory leaps into the ridiculous.
I find this in other artworks, though not necessarily with this methodology. This is what I search for in artworks now.
*as the immediacy of my knowledge about the revolution today has faded with the current need (I believe it’s a need) for foreigners to avoid the ideological dangers of appropriating and ‘tarnishing’ the revolutionary present. Maybe this is changing right now, but I’ve not thrown myself into protest like before.
** Another discussion about the author is needed here.