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Mapping Possibilities: Audiovisual collective reimagines live performance
 
 
From a performance by Nur and Nurah Farahat in Mapping Possibilities IV - Courtesy: Mapping Possibilities
 

For a long time, many thought of the worlds of music and visual art as discrete fields — seen as industries unto themselves with distinct histories, audiences and quirks. Gallery spaces stood in contrast to nightclubs, and the interests of art collectors were seen as worlds away from the everyday music fan.

That is not to say these scenes did not overlap  — visual elements are frequently an integral part of live concerts. Even so, when a VJ (or video jockey) performs, they’ll still often have a secondary role, quite literally pushed to the back of the room to operate a projector while the focus stays on the musical performers onstage.

The rise of digital media has seen these barriers break down over the years, though, and in Cairo audiovisual collective Mapping Possibilities has been looking beyond the usual formats. Founded by Rami Abadir, Nurah Farahat and Islam Shabana, Mapping Possibilities has put on half a dozen events over the past two years, in which left-field electronic sounds merge in real-time with 3D animations and other digital projections.

“It’s not a concert. It’s not this typical performance where you see the sound artist or the music in the front, and then the visuals are just something in the background,” Abadir explains. “It’s a real A/V show, where visuals are 50 percent and the sound is 50 percent. It’s a fully integrated show.”

To emphasize the equal standing of both artists, the performers often sit side-by-side onstage. The room is darkened and images are projected onto a screen while the audience sits and takes in the sights and sounds. It’s not a dance event; it’s more akin to a screening, only everything is happening in real-time. The visual artists embrace generative processes and experimentation through digital tools like coding and open source programming platforms, as well as video and animation. The sound artists, meanwhile, focus on abstract and subdued forms of electronic music, like glitch, intelligent dance music (IDM), ambient and experimental drone.

From Mapping Possibilities’ second event in 2016 - Courtesy: Mapping Possibilities

Mapping Possibilities held their most recent event on Tuesday, September 25, at the Zawya Cinema in downtown Cairo. It was their sixth showcase so far, and one of their most ambitious. Organized in partnership with Zawya and the Swiss arts organization Pro Helvetia Cairo, the night featured two collaborative performances, between a local and a Swiss-based artist.

In the first set, electronic producer Ismail Hosny conjured a raw and vivid soundscape of ambient synths, distorted beats and deconstructed electronics, playing in harmony with a stunning, shape-shifting cosmos of grayscale visuals from Basel-based artist Niculin Brandulin. The second set of the night featured architect and artist Mostafa El Baroody producing sea creature-like mutations and time-warping shapes and patterns against a backdrop of atonal drone tones and cinematic moods, courtesy of Poland-born, Swiss-based sound artist Dominik Grenzler, aka An Moku.

In the darkened theater, young event-goers snacked on popcorn and drinks. The performances were weird, wonderful, spontaneous and intense, the sights and sounds coming together to create multidimensional vortexes and unlock emotions.

Mapping Possibilities doesn’t have a set formula for how artists are matched: Sometimes the partnerships come together naturally and other times the organizers make curatorial decisions about who would best fit with whom. For this show, Abadir got in touch with Grenzler and Brandulin through common friends and collaborators who had previously been in touch with members of the initiative. He then paired them up with two local artists: Hosny had participated in a previous Mapping Possibilities performance, while Abadir had become interested in working with Baroody after seeing posts of his work on Facebook and Instagram.

The artists had been assigned to work together remotely, meeting in person to refine their performances the weekend before the event. Speaking to Mada before the show, Hosny said he welcomed the challenge of finding common ground with an artist from a different medium.

“It would be more stressful if it was another musician or sound artist, because we’d be collaborating in the same medium. It could be much more challenging to reach a point where we’re both satisfied,” he explains. “But when it’s two separate mediums, it’s different, I think. I can do my thing with the sound and he can do his thing with the visuals and somehow we can find a way to complement each other.”

The group’s unique approach has earned them a devoted audience; their shows have drawn sold-out crowds, and helped them reach out to new talents. Their goal is to push the envelope in terms of technology: they’re eager to devise new means of expression through digital mediums and tools, and they’re also keen on collaborating with emerging artists, keeping an eye on social media and staying in touch with events’ attendees to bring in new collaborators. Although they’re interested in often abstract or esoteric forms of art, they’re able to reach a broader audience by staging events at venues like Zawya, rather than a nightclub, which would restrict the audience due to alcohol sales, high ticket prices and door policies.

“We are trying to make sure that we are approaching young people,” Abadir says. “We don’t want to stay a closed circle of artists. We don’t want to do these things that many others did in the past — like, ‘We think that we’re the elite, that we are the people that are in and it’s only us, and that we’re exclusive.’ It’s not like that.”

Farahat emphasizes that artists don’t need to have a technical background to work with Mapping Possibilities. “You can learn all of this. You can bring in whatever you like and we’ll find a way to collaborate with you.”

While it may seem like a high-tech venture, the collective had DIY beginnings. The first event happened almost spontaneously in January 2016. It was a low period for the arts in Cairo, Abadir and Shabana say — the underground scene had been through a rough year in 2015, and many were feeling especially defeated after the closure of downtown venue VENT that summer.

“Everything was quiet. Everyone was disappointed,” Abadir recalls.

Still, Abadir was forging ahead with his music, diving into the abstract beats of IDM and learning the intricacies of the Elektron Monomachine, a synthesizer used by the likes of Autechre. Meanwhile, Farahat and Shabana were partners in the Alchem Studio collective; Farahat was performing as a VJ in concerts and festivals, and Shabana was working on a project attempting to generate visuals using brain waves, as part of a digital media master’s degree at the University of the Arts Bremen in Germany, where Farahat is currently studying in the same program.

From Mapping Possibilities’ third event - Courtesy: Mapping Possibilities

At shows put on by VENT and 100 Copies, VJs often did visuals alongside DJ sets and electronic music performances. They were more of an accompaniment than a feature; a way to keep the audience entertained while the musician was be sitting or standing still behind a laptop. The three artists behind Mapping Possibilities wanted to take things a step further. They drew inspiration from artists who worked in audiovisual contexts like producer Alva Noto and audiovisual composer Tarik Barri, and events like the Mutek experimental music festival, and, despite balking at the notion they could do anything on a similar level, managed to put all the pieces in place for their first digital showcase in January 2016.

They got their hands on a projector through local media platform Medina. They borrowed a sound system from DJ/producer Asem Tag and rented a mixer from a sound engineer friend. In lieu of a screen, they headed to sprawling market in Attaba to buy a blank banner. The show would be held at Makan, a space in Mounira that’s better known for folkloric music and zar performances.

“We just wanted a small place, because we thought only 60 people would show up,” Shabana says. “Nothing was easy, but we were so eager to do anything. I think our motto at the time was, ‘If we don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.’”

The event ended up being a huge success: The room was packed and people were lining up outside to get in. The positive response encouraged the trio to keep going, and in the two years since, they’ve received more interest from organizations on the local scene and branched out with their help. Two Mapping Possibilities events have been put on in collaboration with the new media festival Cairotronica, and they recently reached a deal with Zawya to host the collective’s upcoming events at Zawya’s new theater on Emad Eddin Street downtown.

The September event was funded by Pro Helvetia, earlier installments were self funded, the cost of equipment rentals and other expenses coming out of the three founders’ own pockets and recouped through ticket sales.This is a small collective tasked with tackling big curatorial decisions and logistical challenges, but Mapping Possibilities tries to retain a DIY sensibility at the core of what it does: They often pool resources and equipment and try to help artists learn how to use software and other digital tools ahead of a show.

“This is one of the things that I’m interested in — teaching. Encouraging people to learn platforms and to work with different tools,” Shabana says. “It’s never one thing. We usually tell visual artists to go with the flow. Listen to the music and just do something, or have an actual conversation with the sound artist and come up with a concept.”

While she was overseas, she was still involved with organizing and curating the events, and she was eager to participate — in the third and fourth installments of Mapping Possibilities, Farahat was beamed in over the internet from her current home in Bremen, Germany, to accompany local musicians onstage in Cairo. What could be more Mapping Possibilities than a multimedia show orchestrated remotely?

Farahat says while the idea did not seem doable at first, they soon discovered a number of easy ways to pull it off.

The crew had to think creatively in order to avoid overloading the wifi bandwidth. Instead of streaming video from afar, Farahat used screen-sharing software on her computer and simple commands to control her visuals by remote control. For her performance with Nur, the results were captivating and eerie — Farahat generated animations of figures and characters bathed in 80s colors and computerized textures, while Nur sang live over a surreal ambient soundscape of electronics and samples, the two of them playing on contrasts between bright happy colors and extreme sadness.

From a performance by Nur and Onsi in Mapping Possibilities III - Courtesy: Mapping Possibilities

The fifth event was held in May at the Grand Nile Tower, and in preparation, Farahat and artist Karim (Arnold) Fuad dreamed bigger, using a game engine called Unreal Engine for their visuals. They spent a month working on the show, and on the day of the event they were all set to perform alongside Tag. But when they went to set up, they found to their dismay that the room they were playing in didn’t have an internet connection — making it impossible for Farahat to tune in remotely from Germany. Forced to come up with a new idea at the last minute, Shabana did the live visuals himself while Tag performed.

There was only one minor glitch at the recent event at Zawya, which was quickly resolved — the sound and light cut out mysteriously at the beginning of Hosny and Brandulin’s performance. The collective has been excited about working with the cinema, and its new downtown location, with its large screen and quality sound system, presents the ideal setting, hopefully sidestepping some of the logistical hurdles they have faced over the past years.

As the collective’s name suggests, they’re eager to reevaluate and grow, laying new paths towards the digital horizon. “At the beginning, it was just a slogan,” Abadir says. “With time, it kept happening. Now, we are really mapping possibilities.”

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Peter Holslin