Memory and revolution: How have web-based art platforms contributed to preserving January 25?

Lui: You saw nothing in Hiroshima, nothing.
Elle: I saw everything, everything.

Hiroshima mon Amour, Alain Resnais (1959)

In the iconic first scene of Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon Amour (1959), the female protagonist, a French actor visiting Hiroshima, claims to know everything about the Japanese city that was the site of atomic bombings at the end of WWII. Her words are juxtaposed with depictions of visits to a Hiroshima hospital, the Peace Memorial Museum and a public square. The male protagonist, a Japanese architect, inherently disputes her claim to knowledge, obtained only through indirect experience, which he believes has nothing to do with the actual lived event. The film problematizes the notion of confusing living memory with archived memory, which is reduced only to the surviving objects and material. It also demonstrates how confusing living memory with archival memory falsifies reality, and in doing so exhibits a deep injustice.

In the aftermath of trauma and political exhilaration, such as the eventuality of war or revolution, the preservation of the memory of the event stems from a basic need to collectively make sense of the events that took place. This can serve both a cathartic and therapeutic function for each individual that shares this memory as a social practice. Archiving, therefore, emerges as a way to make personal sense of events through cultivating a public understanding of them.

Despite the exuberant celebrations that followed the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak after the 18-day uprising in Egypt, captured by media the world over — and perhaps because protests took place amid celebrations and political uncertainty — the trauma and controversy surrounding the events of the revolution remain buried in collective consciousness. Therefore, an impulse to preserve the revolution manifests as a collective attempt to interpret the events that form that peculiar public moment in Egypt, the memory of which lingers for many as an essential repositioning of their lives, and a period of re-defining a sense of self, and of the possibilities of citizenship and society.

Soon after Mubarak fell, a project to archive the revolution was announced by the interim government of 2011, and historian Khaled Fahmy was asked by the then-head of the National Archives of Egypt to oversee it. This noble idea, however, ultimately did not have enough momentum nor vision to create a lasting account of the revolution. One main reason for the project’s failure appears to have been rooted in public suspicion that any testimony provided would still somehow be used by the regime against those who offered their stories. Another reason rested in the inaccessibility to official state archives.

There are many incidents throughout Egypt’s modern history where the state abused its power over the archive, not only by concealing it and cordoning it off, but by intentionally destroying its contents, particularly during social and political struggles. Airbrushing the archive was often a method of covering up the crimes of the state. For example, after the 1977 bread riots, President Anwar Sadat ordered all archived state documents from the 1970s to be burnt. The state issued Law 121/2975, governing the archiving of official state documents and implementing access regulations. In this statute, it stipulated that the state reserved the right to prevent access to any official documentation it produced for a period not exceeding 50 years, unless the Constitution provides otherwise. Even after the 50-year period, today, accessibility is exceedingly restricted and is feasible only with security permissions.

Beyond state restrictions, the main challenge that faces any project which aims to preserve and sanctify the memory of the revolution is the encounter with wide-ranging, subjective narratives imposed by an audience. This paradox was summarized in a question posed by Fahmy in a panel discussion organized by the American University in Cairo in 2012, where he asked: What is the revolution? The event was attended by Emad Abu Ghazi, then Egypt’s culture minister, and the Mosireen Collective (who just made their own aggregated archive public under the name 858). The insoluble contradiction that arises from imposing logic on material that documents insurrection was succinctly reified by Abu Ghazi, who noted that while revolutions are born out of an urge to disturb a particular regime, the archive, a systematic process, emerges from adherence to a certain regime of knowledge.  

With these two contradictory impulses in mind, art — particularly web-based, archive-driven works — can be seen as a form of complex manoeuvring required to keep the memory of the revolution alive in some limitless form.

During the Egyptian revolution, the internet presented a unique opportunity for people to tell their own stories as they unfolded. A huge amount of material was uploaded regularly to document the events and present a narrative that is alternative to the one offered by the state, not only by activists, but by hundreds of thousands of participants and observers with internet access. And while the ephemeral nature of this material put it at risk of disappearing into the vastness of the internet, it is this same ephemerality — and immediacy — that makes the internet an appealing medium for artistic and archival practices, through the technology utilized by participatory, web-based art platforms.

In theory, this medium mirrors the main features of social revolution, as structurally, it is a non-hierarchical system of sharing and support that aims at presenting an alternative system of organization in the face of monopolies of narrative. Extending the notion of archives, as a site for memory keeping, to include artworks functions as a counter-tactic to what the state, through its institutional archives, tries to hide, destroy or manipulate.

Exploring the participatory, web-based art platforms that aimed at archiving and documenting the Egyptian revolution raises a number of fundamental and pressing questions about contemporary memory practices: how do archives occur when a (largely) anonymous public takes part in art making processes? How do social, political and economic dynamics and hierarchies manifest themselves within these platforms and affect the process of collective memory formation? Can internet art meaningfully preserve an “authentic” public memory of the 2011 revolution?

Vox Populi: Elitist exclusivity

Vox Populi is a work in progress that intends to archive the revolution by Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi. According to the artist, she started gathering and organizing online material during the 18 days that led to the toppling of Mubarak, in an attempt to keep track of the events. Her collection includes videos, articles and photographs, as well as other material on major events taking place around the world at that time. She gave her collection the name Vox Populi and decided to transform it into a participatory web-based platform in order to keep the memory of the events alive.

In 2014, Baladi received a fellowship from the Open Documentary Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop her project, which she boldly calls “an archive.” Although the project does not claim to occupy the same institutional space as traditional archival repositories, it exists as an artwork that carries the memory of the Egyptian revolution. In a January 2017 presentation at EYE Filmmuseum, titled Vox Populi: Documenting Revolution and Conflict in the Digital Age, Baladi said she aspires to develop two important aspects through her project: “engaging the audience and developing the interface.”

The “archives” tab on the homepage, the one that incorporates components of Baladi’s on-going project Vox Populi, was the seed for the platform’s collection. So far, this collection is entirely made up of the artist’s personal contributions, although she says she intends to engage online audiences in the future in order to contribute new material or interact with the current collection in order to generate different narratives. The website does acknowledge a space for audience involvement by “sharing links to archives on Tahrir Square,” yet in its current form, the full details of the process of contributing are not made available.

Usually, within similar platforms, there exists terms of service that are approved by members prior to their interaction that determine the relationship between the participants and the creator of the archive. The terms of service also help determine the target community of these platforms. Vox Populi, however, does not have a set of pre-announced directives that govern the relationship between users and Baladi. It does not require a registration process. To contribute to the platform, one needs to send an email or a message through an online form, and the artist, Baladi — who is also the administrator — decides if the material submitted is of appropriate quality to be posted on to the platform. So far, however, it seems that this hasn’t happened at all.

Lara Baladi’s Vox Populi

Another aspect that affects the participatory approach of the project is the language. The interface is entirely in English. This raises questions about the targeted audience and the subjects of the material in this project: Who is the main audience of this project, and who are its main contributors?

In her essay Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age, Archiving as an Act of Resistance, which was published by Ibraaz in July 2016, Baladi admits a shortcoming in her attempt to create an archive of the Egyptian revolution, not only due to the project’s online makeup, but also “because more than half of the Egyptian population are illiterate.” While this is surely a gross overestimation according to CAPMAS, illiteracy stood at 20.9 percent in 2015 that Baladi’s project is so wittingly exclusive to the demographic it seeks to represent is curious. Being an online platform clearly excludes the illiterate, whatever their actual proportion in Egyptian society. It’s worth noting that only 33 percent of Egyptians have internet access, according to Internet Live Stats. With the issue of language, the project needlessly increases its exclusivity threshold, restricting its target community to Egyptians who participated in the events of 2011, use the internet, and are able to speak and read English.

The implications of this choice can be understood as that of an artist primarily seeking global recognition. For this reason, the project does not choose to present the archives in the language of the people concerned, but in the language of the global system of media dissemination. Baladi has herself pointed this out in her EYE Filmmuseum talk, suggesting that the platform targets the “global citizen,” as a way of maintaining the spirit of the revolution as a notion of collaborating and sharing. The platform, which can be judged as a site of resistance against state-corrupt media and its narrative about the revolution, does not distance itself from the ideology of information capital by reinforcing the spirit of a national revolution as viewed by the global citizen, who witnessed the broadcasts of protest and violent upheavals from afar.

The contradiction between endeavoring to engage ordinary people, and using a language that is not spoken by these very people, reeks of elitism and crude class bias. This is evident in Baladi’s decision to focus on Tahrir Square as a symbol of the revolution, which does not only deprive people in other places of the memory of the revolution as they lived it, but also reduces the meaning of the revolution to an idealised form of collaboration and sharing carried out by beautiful, well-educated, English-speaking youth in the heart of the capital.

Despite the ramifications of this approach, and the confusion it provokes, whether the project seeks to archive the revolution for future generations or exploits the idea of revolting and archiving as current trends, Vox Populi has the potential to offer alternative views of history, as long as its consumption is paired with a serious navigation of the fraught ideological issues it raises.  

18 Days in Egypt: Funding as an end

Jigar Mehta, a self-identified “international citizen,” is a digital entrepreneur and video journalist based in the United States. He was on a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, working on a project about collaborative storytelling and user-generated journalism, when he came across Egyptian celebrations of Mubarak’s ouster. Impressed by the amount of media produced, he started developing the idea of making a documentary film using crowd-sourced content.

Mehta approached his friend Yasmin al-Ayat, an Egyptian-American new media artist and creative technologist based in New York. Upon learning about his idea, Ayat quit her job as a software developer and interaction designer and moved to Cairo to start working on their new project: 18 Days in Egypt — an interactive, crowd-sourced documentary aimed at documenting the aftermath of the revolution.

Although the title refers to the 18 days of protests that toppled Mubarak, the project was launched well after that period and was repeatedly updated until 2013, as production kicked off as events were still on-going.

Only three other people joined the team, two of them US-based, in addition to a technical partner who developed the software. To contribute to the platform, a user had to sign up through one of their social network accounts. Once registered, the platform guided them through the process by asking questions about the date and description of their story. Then, using a Google map, users could add the location and then mention the social media accounts of other people that share the story they uploaded, who are then invited by the platform to add to it. The platform used open application program interfaces (APIs) to allow users to log on to various social network accounts simultaneously and put media fragments together, encouraging them to tell their stories through multiple platforms, even SMS.

Users could upload their contributions from any device, then the platform would guide them to compile videos, photos, Tweets or Facebook posts into a slideshow module. The content was published immediately through the user, and once it was, the platform reserved all the rights. There were no restrictions over the users’ views on the events, as even pro-regime individuals were welcome to contribute. Moreover, the platform attempted to reach the majority of Egyptians that didn’t have internet access by recruiting journalists to work offline with eyewitnesses across the country (It was not mentioned in each story, however, whether the contributor was a recruited journalist or a regular user.)

Initially, the project aimed to create a crowd-sourced documentary feature of the events of the 18 days, and contributions could be made just by tagging social media content using #18daysinegypt. The creators, however, decided to extend the project to cover the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, and the project’s perceived final form (which was supposed to be released in Fall 2012) changed to an interactive online documentary, according to a 2012 interview with Mehta.

Despite great efforts by the project’s creators, and massive financial support from a crowdfunding campaign launched by its founders (US$20,000) as well as grants from big institutions including the Tribeca Film Institute (US$100,000), the Ford Foundation, Sundance Institute and Blip, in addition to a great deal of media attention, 18 Days in Egypt never saw the light. Why is it, then, that “the first living history project written by the people who are living through it and experiencing it first-hand,” as described by the creators, was called off in secret, before it got a chance to achieve its objective?

The answer is, apparently, that it paid off before any work had been done — financially, that is.

The nature of the internet as a particular type of network prompts a discussion on the expanded complex nature of the medium at hand, where networked cultural production is connected to capitalism’s valorization rubric. In her 2004 study Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Italian theorist Tiziana Terranova argues that, even though the birth of the internet was not simply an answer to the economic needs of capital, it is still connected to the evolution of late capitalist societies as a whole, where “the network” is a hyperactive medium for “free labor,” the key feature of the cultural economy. So while the internet can be a site of resistance against authority, it can also be the material and ideological heart of information capital, a space where content production is collective (user-generated) and compensation is highly selective, as only administrators are compensated. To make this distinction, one needs to ask the fundamental question, as Terranova suggested: who uses the internet? Or, in the case of an art platform, who runs it?

In Mehta’s case, the process of collecting information was the essential objective of the project, as he states in a previous interview, since it fell in line with his work on citizen journalism at Stanford. A finished product was not of the same importance, even though the project’s catchphrase, as stated on the platform, was, “You witnessed it, you recorded it. Now let’s write our country’s history.”

The fact that the content doesn’t only include stories from Tahrir Square (although they make up the larger part), and that many events that took place after the 18 days are represented goes to show the potential of the project. Unfortunately, however, it is a potential that has gone to waste. Roughly, less than 50 contributors have formed the content of 18 Days in Egypt. The platform does not disclose the number of members, but every story posted includes the name of its contributor, and the data on the platform, neither abundant nor especially significant, will soon be obsolete. 

Contemporary Art: From social expression to artistic product

The Contemporary Art Facebook page was created as a response to the creative outpouring that followed the events of 2011, which formed an integral part of the memory of the revolution and played a seminal role in disseminating online meme culture in Egypt.

The page was created anonymously in 2011, and was taken down by Facebook after being reported by multiple users for what was deemed offensive content. In 2013, the admin created a new page and gave it the same name, promising to avoid featuring highly controversial topics that could prompt more reports. In November 2016, Egyptian visual artist Hany Rashed revealed that he was the page’s admin, which signaled the end of the project. Although people interacted with and contributed to the page for almost five years, without knowing who was behind it or what his objectives were, it garnered over 190,000 people within a year of its creation, and has by now amassed almost 700,000 followers.

The objective of this platform — publicized five years after its conception — was to create an archive of the history of contemporary Egypt on social media. The content, formed without announcing any terms of use or direct instructions, incorporated a wide range of political and apolitical forms of art produced through social interaction and engagement with the ongoing protests. The revolution, which was what drove Rashed to create the page, was addressed in both direct and covert ways.

Although the structure of this proactive platform seems to be relatively organic, the development of its content occurred through a mutual understanding between the admin and the page’s contributors. Rashed refers to this process as an “online workshop,” he told me in an email interview, a practice that aspires to teach contributors “how to convert reality into a work of art,” which ties in with much of his previous work.

Rashed, as admin, communicated this role by suggesting a certain theme and encouraging people to follow it, through curating related content from around the internet and posting it to the page. The images he posted would elicit unpredictable public interaction, either by producing more images in relation to the suggested theme, or in written comments. People could also choose to send their contributions through private messages, and the admin would decide if they were appropriate or interesting enough to post as part of the album created for each theme. These contributions, sometimes by artists, were posted with a proper title, the name of the contributor, and the date of production. The selection criteria naturally reflected Rashed’s own political and artistic views, and while he confesses that the project is a subjective one, regarded as an inherent aspect of any artistic practice, even those that cultivate complex social interactions, he says he sometimes included contributions that were not in line with his views, often in a humorous context.

Contemporary Art’s photo albums, where the admin created themes for followers to interact with

Selections were also governed by self-censorship, to prevent any further complaints against the page, which — in the case of particularly controversial political posts — sometimes came hand in hand with death threats, as Rashed recalls. Despite that, he didn’t omit certain posts, and, as a result, he ultimately decided to announce the end of the project, to save it from further reports that could jeopardize the preservation of the content. However, the page still allows passive interaction by commenting on, liking or sharing existing content, but users can no longer contribute new work.

Rashed’s decision to halt the page’s activity in order to preserve it contradicts the idea of the web as a medium that can be kept alive through constantly engaging an online public, not only by being accessed, but also by allowing users to continue to enrich its content. He hopes, however, to find a way to back this content up and move it to a proper platform, without risking losing any part of it.

Preserving platforms that represent significant parts of the revolutionary memory will remain the question at the center of any artistic initiative that uses the web as a medium. Documentation is often the main method to preserve these artworks, where the physical object is not the main focus, as the identity of the work cannot be understood through its material form alone, but through the way the public experiences it. Therefore, these platforms can be treated as interactive media artworks, where audience experience is considered part of the work, and is documented as such.

So far, web-based art platforms offer a partial representation of the revolution, missing and obscuring many links to underrepresented social spectrums of Egyptian life, and leaving many possible portrayals and tools of remembering largely unexplored. However, if preserved, these platforms might function as valuable historical documents that reflect the current discourse related to “art” and “revolution,” paving the way for future research that delves into more unarchived narratives.

This text was originally written as part of the author’s MA thesis, titled Art of Revolution: Online Art Platforms and Participatory Archives in Egypt Post-2011, at the University of Amsterdam. It is the first in a series of articles about memory and revolution, each tackling a particular medium of documentation and preservation.