The ceiling is studded with glowing stars; the floor ornamented with a central checkerboard tile piece. Wooden logs and cement patches hold the stone walls together, and sounds emanate from within. It’s a cacophony of voices speaking on top of one another, over the sound of cars humming, hammers banging and Ramadan street decorations flapping in the summer breeze. I follow the voices, lean close to the walls and listen.
A construction engineer likens cracks to an ailing building’s cry for help and recommends tearing it down to build a safer one with a similar concept — a disturbing thought since I listen to her while standing in a building that had undergone renovations for two full years after it partially collapsed in April 2016. A sound artist cites his experiments mapping the repurposed paper factory opposite us (Townhouse’s Factory Space) using an electromagnetic microphone, saying that he might have needed to spend the night there to develop a relationship with it. Language is a relationship, he says. “It takes a certain state of mind.”
Artist Malak Yacout recorded these interviews with individuals who have a relationship with the titular building of her exhibition Dialogue with 10 Nabrawy at the recently reopened Townhouse gallery. Occupying seven of the gallery rooms on 10 Nabrawy Street’s first floor, the exhibition has a luring design, presenting scans of job listings in local newspapers such as Mantiqti and Al-Waseet, vinyl wall texts transcribing interviews Yacout conducted as part of her research, letters of correspondence with interviewees displayed in glass vitrines, her diaries while working on the project reprinted on newsprint paper, the chamber of sounds I describe earlier, and a mind-map with quotes handwritten on post-its and connected with threads across the walls, before visitors end with a petition printed on clipboards as well as a wall-sized banner.
As a researcher at the gallery during the time of the building’s collapse, Yacout collected information, documents and stories — both real and fantastical — about the 19th century downtown building, its tenants (whom the Townhouse gallery joined in 1998) and its relationship to the neighborhood. Although her personal relationship to the building, where she worked for a year and held her first solo show titled Temporal Semiotics in February 2017, was the starting point for this project, Yacout presents none of this background information in the exhibition.
The artist takes on a more philosophical approach to language, subjectivity and notions of site-specific art. Using 10 Nabrawy Street as her lab rat, she asks if sites can engage in a dialogue and communicate something beyond the histories of their inhabitants, and what languages they might use to do so. She poses these questions at a selection of artists, architects, political scientists, linguists and Townhouse outreach director Yasser Gerab, yet seems to deliberately leave them unanswered; coded.
The transcripts of Yacout’s interviews presented in the second room as vinyl texts are cut and pasted together, running diagonally across the walls. It is challenging, if not impossible, to read through, as the text is interrupted by door frames, room corners and the ceiling. I keep reading the same line over and over in my head before being cut off by the physicality of the room where I stand. I try to identify references in the transcript, to decipher whom Yacout was talking to. She speaks to Wouter Osterholt, one of two Dutch artists who previously investigated the neighborhood’s history and contemporary fabric. His 2008 project, entitled “Model Citizens,” which he realized with Elke Uitentuis during a residency at Townhouse, visualized the aspirations of the neighborhood residents on a miniature model. A captivating process that lured most of the local community into the first-floor gallery, it nevertheless approached architectural structures as tools that reflect the stories of people.
Yacout suggests looking at sites as hypothetically independent political beings with which people can converse. Her first engagement with this subject was in November 2017 as a student at the Public Art and New Artistic Strategies graduate program at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany. Assigned to develop a project for the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace) in Berlin, Yacout tried to identify a writing system through which the building communicates by researching its archive for visual symbols. Her efforts were unsuccessful, so she intervened in Berlin’s public libraries by adding a page listing “Kronprinzenpalaisisch” (a hypothetical language she proposes for Kronprinzenpalais) as a recognized world language in the reference book The Languages of the World, with the hope of engaging random readers of that particular copy of the book with her proposal.
Such performative gestures continue in Dialogue with 10 Nabrawy. While preparing for the show, Yacout advertised a job vacancy for a researcher in several local newspapers. Applicants should be specialized in structural investigations of buildings in terms of constructions and language, she writes, before ending her post by inviting applicants to “be the first to find the means to listen to the building and its testimonies.” Scans of these listings are what we first encounter in the exhibition space. At the final room of the exhibition, Yacout asks visitors to sign a petition demanding specialists and professionals to study and officially recognize the language of 10 Nabrawy Street. But to what end are we presented with these documents? How might they surpass being a symbolic gesture for the contemporary art community and push us to reconsider our engagement with 10 Nabrawy Street as a site?
The forms which Yacout uses to initiate a dialogue with and about the building seem more important than their content. We do not know the responses to the job listing. Displayed in the same room is a request dated March 2nd, 2018, to publish the job listing in the state’s flagship newspaper, Al-Ahram. Although the advertisement was never published for bureaucratic and security concerns, we see the suggested rewrites made by the copyeditor, belying that the administrative staff of Al-Ahram’s listings department did not understand how the sought after researchers should “unveil means of listening, history and memories of buildings.”
Similarly, many of the selected transcripts and sound bites are conversational, and seemingly reflect the interviewees’ stream of consciousness. They barely include answers, and only tangentially address the questions Yacout poses. The artist also shares her attempts at having conversations about the possible language of 10 Nabrawy with German architect Jochen Boskamp, professor of architectural theory Ines Weizman, as well as Sara Ishikawa, an architect and professor specialized in people-space relationships, among others. On the walls, we read interview requests from Yacout to potential interlocutors (many of which fail because the interviewees’ health doesn’t allow it or they have moved on with their research interests), and we see letters exchanged between Yacout and her interviewees displayed in glass vitrines.
Dialogue with 10 Nabrawy is designed to suggest the possibility of a dialogue in the most abstract sense. It demands visitors’ time and effort to navigate its various components and make the connections. Its alluring aesthetic quality and multifold design invite us to engage with Yacout’s proposal — the site-specific artwork being this possible dialogue about the space, within it, and in which the building itself physically intervenes. It is a thought-provoking experience that can also be frustrating, given its intangibility and confinement to being a symbolic gesture.