Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art
and Contemporary Image Collective (CIC)
December 11-31, 2005
‘PhotoCairo’ opened in the wake of one of Egypt’s most hotly contested parliamentary elections. A few months earlier, Hosni Mubarak reclaimed his title of over twenty years in the country’s first multiparty presidential election. Titled “Image Statement Position,” the festival’s self-proclaimed goal was to “explore the ways in which artists challenge, employ and re-imagine the reproducible image as a vehicle for positioning individuals and institutions within national, cultural and socioeconomic ideological contexts.”1 A series of exhibitions, panel discussions, film screenings and workshops and presentations hosted at the Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art and the brand new Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), focused on artistic practices or “art-related practices”2 that critically engaged public and/or official discourses. The relevance of the festival’s approach and goals seemed a safe bet. Interesting works by Wael Shawky, Fernando Castillo Sanchez, Iman Issa, Jean-Luc Moulène, Giovanni Carmine and Christoph Büchel, among others, were on exhibition. Audience attendance was generally respectable. There were moments of heated debate. Why then, did ‘PhotoCairo’ leave an uneasy sense of irresolution rather than a lasting impression on audiences?
The proposed aim of “transcend[ing] geographic boundaries to create an international platform for the debate surrounding contemporary visual culture,”3 emerged as problematic over the course of the two-week event. The festival provided a platform upon which to test the readability of the interventionist4 and socially, politically engaged strategic practices it presented. However, while participating artists and speakers were decidedly ‘international,’ it was the milieus of Downtown Cairo and Mounira that provided the physical and discursive context for this platform. The events that resonated with audiences seemed to be those that were closest to the terms of those particular contexts. Moreover, each of the events seemed to appeal to specif ic audiences, who were attracted by a particular area of interest rather than by the festival as a whole. Whatever discussion occurred remained within the context of the individual events. In the absence of a conversation that spilled over from one event to the next, or resurfaced repeatedly, the festival generally didn’t draw in audience members beyond the usual suspects.
Perhaps such a phenomenon was due to audiences’ prioritization of those shared discursive terms, as well as an unwillingness to engage the unfamiliar. Or perhaps this was due to the nature of the theme itself, balanced between the sphere of public activity and shared symbolics, and an artistic framework of engagement. What does it mean to critically engage a public in downtown Cairo, an area already caught up in a tight web of mutual observation, consumerism and more recently, political happenings? What constitutes intervention and performance and visibility in this setting? How is the idea of image statement position understood and what is read as publicly meaningful?
The moments of real audience engagement reflected a marked division of perspectives, defined alternately by an affiliation with, or a sense of alienation from, the festival’s cultural, linguistic and aesthetic terms of presentation. For example, an extended discussion following a panel discussion on blogging took a sharp turn from English into Arabic when the issue of language choice was raised in terms of the festival itself and of the independent cultural sphere in Egypt.
In another instance, Hassan Khan’s a lecture that tries to speak of images but ends up being concerned with something else at Studio Emad Eddin was tense as one side of the room, occupied primarily by young actors from the Emad Eddin rehearsal studio, became increasingly restless and unabashedly disengaged. An actor presented the lecture in a steady voice, reading a script written by the artist in classical Arabic. The spoken text was composed of commentary and repeated statements regarding the production or performance of meaning (and with that, difference and identity) through discourse and the intersection of image, idea and language. Images selected from the artist’s personal collection of photographs and excerpted from an instructional book on photography flashed occasionally on a large screen behind the actor. Each “section” of the lecture was introduced by the artist’s recorded voice and divided by a loud staccato beat. The actor was often cut off mid-sentence by the pre-recorded audio. The overlapping frameworks of the text, audio and visual elements, their internal repetitions, and the juxtaposition of live and prerecorded components contributed to loosen the integrity of any specific meaning, privileging instead the quality of these mediums as a kind of texture or surface wherein ideas and images came in and out of focus.
The artist held a discussion afterwards that elicited hostility from one side of the room and a defensive stand from the other, generally composed of members of a more familiar arts audience. The demand for a demonstration of meaning within a clearly articulated message arose as a decisive issue. A man stood up and declared that he hadn’t understood anything that had been said, a comment that was received with a great burst of celebratory applause. Nonetheless, the formal discussion lasted almost an hour and conversations continued as people spilled out into the foyer.
1 Excerpt from the ‘PhotoCairo 3/ Image Statement Position’ press release. 2 A term employed by Stephen Wright during his discussion entitled The Use-Value of Art and Political Art Practices. 3 Excerpted from the 'PhotoCairo 3/ Image Statement Position’ press release. 4 From the title Gregory Sholette’s presentation Interventionist Art: the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.