Circumnavigation: a text for Rana ElNemr and Cimatheque.

In June 2015, Cairo’s new and exquisite alternative film centre Cimatheque opened its doors in the first of its public events (though not the first of its activities at all). For this they invited Ala’ Younis and Rana ElNemr to co curate screenings and works from their extensive archive.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 17.24.26
ElNemr approached me to reflect on the choice of four film works that she selected for screening, with a loose theme of working, appearing, and making art in the streets of Cairo. The works referenced are: Giran (Neighbours), dir: Tahani Rached (2012); The White Line, dir: Hossam and Ali Moheeb (1962); The Sad Song of Touha, dir: Atiat El-Abnodi (1972); Monument of the Buzzwords, Samir El Kordy (2012).

The publication included an essayistic use of images, laid out as part of the design work of Ahmad Aiyad, which cannot easily be reproduced here. Instead I use generic images as illustration, but you should pick up the print publication to see Aiyad’s work.

Some small contextual notes have been added to aid the comprehension of an international readership. The Arabic translation will be uploaded soon.

The world is a ball

Inside the ball are people

Egyptian television was launched in Spring 1960 and The Rising Generation was one of its earliest broadcasts. It addresses the citizens of the two-year-old United Arab Republic, a union of Egypt and Syria.

The broadcast is centred in a studio set adorned with long stripes of red, white and black stretching from the back to the front of the studio, creating an effect of linear perspective between the viewer and the set itself; the lines imply a pure continuity between the studio, and you at home. Five popular singers, in dramatic silhouette, each sing a different verse of a patriotic song. The piece cuts away from the studio to introduce the key social groups imagined to form the pillars of this new society: the army, the farmers, the workers, and the artists and intellectuals. Each group also heads smartly towards the camera before reappearing in the studio, where they join the singers in a call-and-response praise for the new country. The broadcast can be seen as a pure interpellation device, making the literal connection between here, the idealised space of the project of statecraft, and you out there, you who is either a farmer, a soldier, a worker, or an intellectual (or aspiring towards these positions) ready to be subjectivised within this particular logic.

Artists and intellectuals, as imagined by The Rising Generation.
Artists and intellectuals, as imagined by The Rising Generation. [1]
The Rising Generation is a totalising piece of propaganda within a now-familiar visual language. [2] I mention it here to produce a contrast with another broadcast, The White Line (dir: Hossam and Ali Moheeb, 1963). This, combining TV footage and animation undoubtedly has a similar nationalistic tone, but also, through its formal experimentation, is much less totalising. What fascinates me is not that The White Line is less or more propagandist according to forms and languages that we know well; but that it could possibly itself be a document of a moment when those languages are under-established, in question, in a process of formation. This does something important to how we think about the construction of nationalist monuments. We usually speculate about the effect upon the national consciousnesses of those of us who see the work. To contemplate The Rising Generation is to see a conclusive object, one that was not only designed to take effect on any uncertainty within the viewer, but also to mask that of the maker. But when something like The White Line comes along, its ambivalence and partial innocence indicates that the maker, too, is in an unresolved position.

Who are you, when you make something?

Does it make you?

These questions become important when we understand that Hossam and Ali Moheeb were of the same generation of makers who formed centralised state media as it is known in Egypt, and along whose lines Egyptian state TV is made today. Seen from the present, they are ‘not us’: propagandists, in the pay of the deep state, not working in the interests of either artistic or human freedom. [3]

But The White Line has a playful attitude towards the possibilities of animation within the medium of television. While centralised state media would eventually develop the forms, languages and rhetorics familiar today in delivering a particular worldview to a mass audience, The White Line evidences a moment when those languages were not yet established and the medium offered a place for speculation, even within and alongside somewhat propagandist content. This was, in part, made possible by the fundamental characteristics of animation. The truth claim of filmic material – being a faithful mimetic record of what is filmed – is not available to animation, which comes with the premise of play and invention. Combining animation with television images and experimental editing allows for the constant presence of the improbable and an ongoing reminder of the constructed nature of The White Line’s own rhetoric.

The film opens with a man at a drawing desk in a studio, who carefully pastes down a strip of white paper presumably as part of a drawing or storyboarding process. This eponymous white line then becomes animated and repeats as a subtle motif throughout the rest of the film. The line itself is curious. The idea of a ‘white line’ can have many metaphorical readings, perhaps suggesting a baseline of youthful, innocent goodness that underscores all the other much more definitive representations in the film. But the white line is mercurial: it is a thin white jet of water streaming upwards in a municipal fountain; it is the grid that splits the screen as three different versions of the main character talks to herself; it is the lettering that writes itself on the screen; it is the smart exhilarating jump cut between a diver’s (white-clothed) leaping body and a white passenger jet racing through the sky. So we can make another proposal, that the white line is the trickster spirit within the film, the spirit of animation itself.

The narrative content of The White Line is more straightforwardly readable on nationalist promotional lines. The story centres loosely around a good looking young couple and their relationship in Cairo. The romance is less to add narrative tension, and more to provide a structure around which to wrap images and experiences that give a clear illustration of a modern, dynamic Egypt. So, at the beginning, our pretty girl character openly wonders, with the help of two animated birds, about whether her love is going to show up or not; the birds give her opposing advice on whether or not he’s a good man. Ultimately, one of the birds tells this modern young women that he is on his way, and they meet, and go joyfully exploring the city together. This city is made of monuments, freshly built national projects shining with optimism; the fountains of Tahrir, the Cairo Tower, the national stadium, for example. This blatantly postcard-esque formula, which is now highly familiar in contemporary TV, has not quite settled into its now-familiar language yet. [4] In the stadium scene, for example, the possible spectacle of the sporting activities in the stadium is eschewed for the formal possibilities of the repeating gridded white lines of the stands, where our couple sit alone, apparently delighted to appear and disappear in different parts of the seats for no reason other than the animator’s whim.

Inside the ball are people

Who are watching other people

The white line slides its way through paper-thin gaps in the totalising fictions of the state.

Who is they?

Are they having fun?

Samir El Kordy’s attempt to monumentalise a national consciousness – specifically that being formed during the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolution that began on 25th January – traced a different path. Monument of the Buzzwords literally follows in protesters’ footsteps. Those paths are less about proposing an image of the future but about recording, as a form of sculptural drawing, the steps literally taken by people as they gathered and marched to the nearest large space, to protest: Tahrir. His proposal for a monument is a map of those major paths and thoroughfares – such as from Dokki, across Kasr El Nil bridge, into Tahrir – that were taken on 28th January. The monument is made of raised concrete walkways, elevating the paths themselves that formed the key transitional moments of a change of consciousness from we can’t protest to we can protest. So in this sense, it is a monument to the present tense. It can’t fall victim to nostalgia because it depends neither on shiny new national projects (as depicted in The White Line) nor on a supposedly glorious past (as glimpsed in the documentary Giran/Neighbours); but on a permanent now, in which reality is actively and forcefully in flux on genuinely revolutionary terms.

That is the ostensible premise. The actual construction, though, would lead to another reality. The raised concrete walkways, taking up the entire width of the road, turn paths into walls. By virtue of these paths, raised up for a sort of edified walking experience, the city is carved up and walled along the exact fault lines highlighted by the country’s disobedient masses. Those paper thin gaps through which the white line slips. Now concreted over and turned into sculptures with no direct representational quality, but an architectonic one instead. Each segment of the city named for another purported aspect of the revolution, with “appropriate behaviours” proscribed within. It takes little imagination to understand this monument as a 90-degree inversion of the concrete walls that broke up the city along almost the exact same paths – only perpendicular – that were set down throughout 2011-2014 in an attempt to control protesters and maintain a permanent sense of emergency. In celebrating disobedience, the monument quietly suppresses it. It all depends on whether you get to stand at the top of the monument, or have to scurry alongside it and look for its gaps.

So as with The White Line, there is a strange hybrid figure here, a maker who is putting a supposedly intellectually and aesthetically progressive practice in the service of the ideologies of a repressive state. This paradoxical proposition is, in El Kordy’s case, a conscious one that again leads us back to the question of the presumed ethical wholeness of the maker. When we (that ‘us’ again) make work, or do something in public, are we also in this midway position, caught between that particular innocence/assumed progressivism of our intentions, and the formation of a subjectivity that hasn’t quite yet come to pass? Artistic practice schemes around how the work will unfold in public, but always according to the terms of the present.

In the documentary Neighbours, the beautiful Cairene neighbourhood of Garden City is examined through the memories of its residents, most of whom interviewed are prominent intellectuals, writers, diplomats, and aristocrats of the King Farouk era. Though it is unavoidably nostalgic, the film manages not to be another frankly colonial glory-days-of-Cairo lament, because of the plurality of nostalgias being accessed. None of the interviewees positions is innocent of politics – whether colonial, neo-colonial, militarist, socialist, monarchist, secularist, or simply concerned with survival – but each is presented without comment, allowing the contrast to do the speaking. Whatever their position, there is the abiding sense that almost everybody in Garden City is somehow on the wrong side of history, or have been shaped by paradigms and social structures that no longer exist. They speak of being exiled by Nasser, defiant of the British, of being consultants to King Farouk, of being managers of world wars, or being culturally closer to Europe than to Egypt. All their references are to the past. This is not so much a matter of them saying things were better then (although some of them do); reading between the lines they are all really saying I fit in better then. Or, if they did not fit, my battles were relevant then.

 As artists, intellectuals, and other people who shape paradigms – ie, an artistic ‘us’ of the past – we can see a warning in these people, who eventually have allowed their paradigms to shape them. They are resigned, in every sense. Having had their particular avant-garde rejected or moved on from, they have ironically become relics of another moment. At a certain point towards the end of the film, the camera idly trails over contemporary youth – veiled young women in the gaudiest of Downtown fashions – in a manner that implicitly contrasts both with the European chic of many of the female, francophone interviewees, as well as comments in the film about the contemporary prevalence of veiling. These young men and women in their ‘cheap’ ‘conservative’ clothes seem to move too fast through the primordial heave of Garden City, flaunting themselves as a contradiction to the mindsets that built the neighbourhood.

Overshadowing all the discussions of the changing nature of the neighbourhood is a constant referral to the architectural impact brought about by the presence of the British and American embassies, most particularly their security arrangements. The blocked-off streets, that effectively killed numerous businesses, is politely regretted by the British Ambassador as an unfortunate necessity. In this way, the film anticipates the network of concrete walls that arrived in Garden City later that year, and so disrupted the lives of everyone nearby.

They looked and I looked

As if I were drawn in a picture

and the world is a ball

In the absence of reliably enforced laws – on anything from zoning districts to the cost of parking to habeus corpus – the person who can most effectively define reality and thus set up some temporarily advantageous rules of conduct is the person who survives.

There’s a strange story I was told by a colleague who worked here for many years. One day, he was leaving his offices in Garden City when a just-pubescent boy approached him in the street, and propositioned him for sex in exchange for money. My colleague said no, I’m not interested, thank you. The boy didn’t turn a hair, but simply lifted his t-shirt to reveal two just-developing breasts. It’s ok, he said, I’m actually a girl. Would you still like sex? The shock was less about the gender shift nor the act of street prostitution in such a young person, but in their profound adaptability even on the cusp of adolescence, triggered by survival and completely unflinching.

If we are, through art, to propose other ways to act, we are not just acting around the punitive and steadfast laws of the state but also enmeshed within the unwritten, and constantly rewritten, codes that make those laws livable or at the very least offer a means to have a good satisfying kick downwards. Those codes include racketeering, artifice, tipping, sexual harassment, the sort of actions that live on a continuum of the category of corruption or bullying. But they also include masquerade, adornment, generosity, the turning of a blind eye, unfailing humour, and beauty. Looking beyond a mere celebration of the ‘everyday’ – which can be pretty beautiful in itself. Accidents, side effects, the results of distraction or civic pride or commercial necessity, all produce forms just a touch more excessive than necessary. Why else do the street cats get fed, or the laundry hung so beautifully arranged in order of colour and size? How else will one young man signal to another that they should go somewhere and fuck? How else can a woman carry her shopping and talk on the phone if it’s not tucked smartly into her veil? How else will these sweet potatoes get sold if the seller’s cry is not strangely haunting, beautiful, and instantly recognisable? Why else would you grow dill and basil on a plot you are only supposed to be guarding? The question is always, how do we work within these conditions in a way that makes an insertion that can mean anything. Is it impossible to work in public because the rules are too tight? Or is it impossible to work in public because the tapestry is already too rich? In that tapestry, is there a white line that can stand out, and be called art?

As projects such as Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), and Mahatat For Contemporary Art, El Fann Medan, have shown, working in this zone poses far more logistical, legal, and artistic challenges precisely because of the underlying and cut-throat contestation of the meaning of public space that already exists. The logic of such initiatives is to ‘bring culture’, or, perhaps, ‘produce culture’ in public spaces that have no recognised cultural practices i.e. things that might go in a museum or contemporary art gallery or a theatre. As such, a division between culture and non-culture, maker and non-maker is left fairly undisturbed; that problematic category of ‘us’ is unquestioned. This was the assumption I, in a roundabout way, criticised in my review of D-CAF’s Urban Visions public dance programme, which I argued assumed an un-gendered (default bourgeois male) viewing subject for whom looking and wandering in the street was an unproblematic experience. The BuSSy Project differs, in recognising that we as makers are also made by the work we do and the world in which we do it. The BuSSy project, founded by theatre maker Sondos Shabayek, began as a relocation of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues (whose stories are highly centred on Western womens’ experience) but developed their performances more and more tricksily in the public sphere. Whether making the performances in the women’s carriage on the train, or treating the street as a laboratory itself for ‘experiments’ with the gendered forms and structures of the act of sexual harassment, the BuSSy Project acknowledges that the person who gets up and makes a theatrical work about Cairo’s streets, is in the very same body and life experience as the person who got into the street and went to work in Cairo’s streets that day. As makers, we are not standing outside bringing culture in; we are constructed within and as part of the formal and informal constructions of the state.

Since even before the upheavals of 2011, the comfortable notion of who ‘we’ are as the ‘independent’ art scene of Egypt has become more and more crystallised and brittle, an ideological ornament subject to chips and knocks. The deep state is a formidable enemy of artistic freedoms, and this fact does not change much, but its mechanisms do and so do the myriad survival responses of the people. The alternative proposal, from art, cannot become an artefact in itself.

[1] While the military, farming and working figures are depicted in groups running towards the camera in a uniform mass, the artists and intellectuals are the only ones more or less shown au naturel and in the context of a garden, before putting their drawing boards and notebooks under their arms and walking leisurely off camera. This slight acknowledgement of the more Arcadian and independent quality of their existence, and the difficulties of depicting that particular artistic utopia even as they form a key pillar of the state apparatus, has an unintended humour that cracks me up every time.

[2] Ismail Fayed’s recent piece in ArteEast is an excellent discussion of propagandist broadcasts such as The Rising Generation.

[3] If you are reading this in Egypt, I’m gonna assume you are ‘us’, but in case you don’t know who ‘we’ are, by that I mean the independent contemporary cultural scene/audience/makers of Egypt and the surrounding region, a category and assumed community that itself strongly requires deconstruction and questioning, but conveniently enough for me, not in this essay.

[4] Such a formula – of an attractive young couple experiencing the delights of the city as a means of national promotion – has entered television’s contemporary lexicon. I am strongly reminded of the promotional segments made by the host country of the Eurovision Song Contest that are screened in between songs, which typically aim to show the rest of the world a snapshot of the host country’s most cherished ideologies.


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