Meeting Points 5

Roy Samaha, Please Rewind Me Later. Courtesy the Young Arab Theater Fund

Various cities
Meeting Points 5
November 1–30, 2007

With 11 cities, 31 venues, 87 artists, 98 performances, 48 exhibitions, 45 film screenings, 6 far-flung curators and a core team of 15, the month-long contemporary arts festival Meeting Points 5 was an exercise in mad ambition and obsessive-compulsive organization. Flip open the catalogue that accompanied the festival and one finds an explosion of intersecting lines plotted along multiple axes. Splashed across the booklet’s first full spread, the graphic is more illustrative than legible in representing the schedule of events that cast Meeting Points 5 across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe for thirty days and nights in November (plus one in December and another ten in January).

Spearheaded by the Young Arab Theater Fund in Cairo, Meeting Points grew out of the group’s work on supporting and restructuring art spaces in the Arab world to make them more capable and better equipped to initiate, host, and tour new productions in dance, music, theater, film, performance, and the visual arts. The first three editions were modest affairs, taking up residence one city at a time in Alexandria, Amman, Cairo, and Tunis. The fourth iteration extended its reach and tackled seven cities at once: Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, El Minia, and Tunis. Meeting Points 5 engineered a pivotal shift in the project’s structure and scope.

A proper curatorial team — including Frie Leysen, founder and director of Belgium’s Kunsten Festival des Arts, and Maha Maamoun, an artist and a principle player in Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective — came on board for the first time, establishing an organizational core that will allow subsequent teams to rotate in and out for future editions. Leysen and Maamoun looked beyond the region that has historically been Meeting Points’ sole geographic concern and invited artists not only from the Middle East and North Africa but also from Europe, Asia, and South America. They dropped Berlin and Brussels into the program alongside Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, El Minia, Rabat, Ramallah, and Tunis. And they added two new elements to the Meeting Points enterprise — a mobile DVD library and ‘Unclassified,’ a series of six exhibitions rooted in six cities by local curators who were tasked with creating site-specific urban interventions to complement the festival’s whirlwind schedule of traveling productions.

Meeting Points 5 came at a crucial time. The independent contemporary art scenes in cities such as Beirut and Cairo, and to a lesser extent in Amman and Alexandria, have about ten years of history to consider and critically assess. Cultural production in the Arab world is on the verge of fairly dramatic change. The international art market has arrived in the region — courtesy of newly opened blue-chip galleries and regional outposts for the auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Osian’s. Establishing a paper trail of prices and connecting values to works like any other commodity, these firms are in effect rewriting the region’s art history. And lurking behind them, of course, is the specter of Gulf money, which is financing a dizzying array of future museums, trusts, and foundations that will, in time, overhaul the economy of artistic practices across the Middle East and North Africa.

This puts fiercely independent, politically critical, and notoriously nimble art scenes in the uncomfortable position of appearing suddenly and unexpectedly at risk not from the intricacies of local politics but from the force of global capital. Meeting Points 5 effectively ran a diagnostic on them all — exposing their strengths and weaknesses and testing their fortitude in the face of future challenges.

In a sense, the festival circulated a compilation of greatest hits. Meeting Points 5 presented works by quasi-generational art stars such as Walid Raad, Yto Barrada, Rabih Mroue, Wael Shawky, Amal Kenawy, Khalil Rabah, Hassan Khan, and Sherif El Azma, often referred to as the usual suspects. Local audiences that had, in all likelihood, some knowledge of these artists but no firsthand experience of their work could meaningfully engage with them in a hyperactive atmosphere. Meeting Points 5 created a network of local partners and proceeded to poke and prod their respective competencies. Were they sufficiently equipped to host contemporary productions in multiple disciplines? Could they draw a crowd? Could they field works of relevance beyond the immediate locales in which they were created? Did such works travel well?

Three of seven projects that were commissioned by Meeting Points 5 faltered (Amal Kenawy’s performance Cairo … Eating Me Inside), fell apart (Khalil Rabah’s TVZero123), or failed to be completed in time (Wael Shawky’s Telematch trilogy). While miserable for the artists and mildly irritating for audiences, these were precisely the technical and curatorial glitches that all involved in the festival should take as tough-though-necessary lessons learned.

The dance program was the strongest and most international, ranging from Hiroaki Umeda’s sensual yet cerebral While Going to a Condition and Accumulated Layout and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s brainy and abstract Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich to Bouchra Ouizguen’s awkwardly moving Aita (one of the festival’s more successful commissions). The video program, recycling works that already travel with ease, came off as uneven and occasionally indulgent. Alongside the power and simplicity of, say, Wael Shawky’s Al-Aqsa Park or Yto Barrada’s The Magician, works by Roy Samaha and Rami Sabbagh failed, again, to do much more than exasperate viewers. (The DV-Theque, by contrast, was a treasure trove, and the only downside was that it didn’t stick around anywhere for long.)

The unnamed godfather of Meeting Points 5, at least among the more streetwise works, was none other than Guy Debord. Sherif El Azma poignantly ripped off Debord’s ideas (with spirit but without acknowledgement) in his performance of The Psychogeographies of Loose Associations. And the timeless appeal of The Society of the Spectacle, all rebellion and agitation, underpinned several of the ‘Unclassified’ programs.

In Alexandria, Bassem El Baroni conceived a clever art project as a high-concept public-relations firm. In Amman, Oraib Toukan’s Can You See Me: Monologues in Air manifested urban myth and a critique of acquiescence about the war in Iraq through a set of orange arrows on rooftops. Maha Abu Ayyash hit the streets, literally, with stenciled footprints that asserted the presence of pedestrians on streets overrun with vehicular traffic. Leena Saoub disrupted the commercial onslaught of advertising billboards. Samah Hijawi staged public interventions. And all of the ‘Unclassified Amman’ projects, curated by Hijawi and Makan’s Ola Khalidi, smartly articulated the otherwise unspoken ways in which Amman is physically and mentally changing, flush with one million Iraqis, the latest wave of migrants to a city that thrives on its ability to absorb them.

In Beirut, Raed Yassin’s The Secret of the Peripheral City codified the concerns of a generation with his homage to the trash and comics culture of the 1980s. Staking a claim to the city that is drastically different from the work of Walid Raad, Akram zaatari, Walid Sadek, Jalal Toufic, and Rabih Mroue, Yassin pulled together a video by Ali Cherri, a photo installation by Reine Mahfouz, a mischievously performative piece by Shawki Youssef, and more. Vartan Avakian’s tailored and tweaked pinball machine was arguably the most outrageous piece in the entire, panArab extravaganza.

Avakian, a mechanic’s son, took two old pinball machines, took them apart, and rebuilt one, titled, with tongue firmly in cheek, The Time of Heroes. The game, which was installed like an altar in the crypt of St. Joseph’s Church, evokes “the lost time between the 1980s and the 1990s, of checkpoints and Maradona, Nirvana, and Sami Clark [a cheesy Lebanese singer who recently made a questionable comeback], the cold war and devil worshipers, Madonna and Madonna [the Haifa Wehbe of her day], the disappearance and reappearance of Saint Chabel and Ron Arad,” and so on. Actually and endlessly playable, the “flipper” allows you to kill the bad guys (whoever you decide they are), as well as smuggle arms, run guns, and, of course, money-launder for points and additional balls. (There is also a bit about sleazy adventures under moonless skies in the game’s instructions.)

The touring program allowed for a much-needed exchange of comparative experiences. But ‘Unclassified,’ stitched as it was into each of its six cities, gave rise to more visceral experimentation. And in calling on the critical resources of a younger generation of artists to curate, it also addressed what may be the region’s most pressing need — the ability to sustain but reinvent those independent art scenes that will soon require some serious regeneration to survive.