9th Cairo Video Festival: Decentralization, representation and potentiality
 
 
Nika Oblak & Primoz Novak's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (2019) at Cairo Festival City
 

What does it mean to have a city-specific festival, when different localities within a city can each contextualize that meaning in very different ways? The organizers of the 9th Cairo Video Festival, which ran from September 9 to 30, asked this question, by expanding beyond the “regular” geographies of where such works of contemporary art are often situated. The festival had video installations dispersed throughout the city, in a bookstore (Diwan), a furniture shop (El Samary), a cafe (Falak), a shopping mall (Cairo Festival City), the Opera House, Omar Effendi department stores, El Araby stores, the Cairo Jazz Club bathrooms, a field on Qursaya Island, and many other spots. The more expected locations included Medrar, Zawya and Cimatheque.

“It’s the Cairo Video Festival, not just downtown Cairo, so it’s important to reflect on Cairo — the whole city. Hence our symbol, the locust — we always say that we are invading the city with videos, so we had to literally invade the city,” says Medrar’s Mohamed Allam, the festival director.

 

Decentralization, or recentering spaces of capital?

Not only does this year’s festival take on a less centralized exhibition format than usual, but it also shows more public engagement, in that it inserts itself into a variety of different public experiences, from shopping to spending a night out in a music venue. Of course it still caters to a demographic specificity (primarily through consumerism), but it’s a valid gesture to break outside of the downtown core. Although the power dynamics of seeing a display of art as an “invasion,” along with the symbol of the locust (an insect feared for the damage it causes), could have violent connotations, the festival highlights the extent to which public space in general often sees a multitude of invasions (of advertisements, gentrification, and corporate expansionism), and that maybe “causing damage” to these invasions itself is important. 

If the aim, however, is decentering the contemporary art world (which is not very centered in broader society), then in doing so, is the festival just recentering the mainstream “centers” of society and public engagement (such as shopping malls, etc.)?

Because the festival engages with so many different audiences in so many different ways, CVF hired a team of people to “follow up with the locations and audiences, to not just leave the artworks there and pretend that there are thousands of people watching, which of course is not true, because sometimes people passing by aren’t even looking at the artworks,” Allam says.

CVF display at Omar Effendi

In working with venues that don’t normally have anything to do with video art, Mayar Kotb, the production manager, said that a large part of the discussions with the people running those places involved explaining what video art actually is, a process that led the team itself to confront that very question, along with what video art can be, and how it can be seen. These questions surface in the vast diversity of forms that the genre incorporates (from music videos and narrative episodes to videos that one would expect to find on Facebook, etc.), which calls into question what it even means to have a medium-specific festival in the first place. If the definition of the medium is so malleable, then what does that do to the intentionality of the invasion? 

If there is already such a dominant image regime specific to these public realms, and already so many commercial videos on display in these spaces, then what is the purpose of intervening with a medium-specific intention? One of the works shown at Cairo Festival City Mall, displayed on wall panels in the promenade — Extraweg’s “Human Paste” (2018) —  is an uncanny, hyper-realistic video depicting depersonalized humans being squeezed out of a tube, like paint or toothpaste. Seen specifically in the context of the shopping center, the simplistic critique within the work has more weight, alluding to the homogenous individuation of consumer culture, without which it might be seen as some trippy, viral video popping up for seconds on a newsfeed. 

Without a traditional selection committee this year, those selected as programmers range from actors and directors to sculptors and writers, including Sarrah Abdelrahman, an actress, Alaa Abdelhamid, a sculptor and writer, Mona Gamil, a contemporary dancer, the filmmaker Islam Kamal, Ahmed Refaat, a curator, Mai Elwakil, a writer, the curatorial collective 96 Negatives, and the CVF directors, Mena El Shazly and Mohamed Allam. The diversity in the choice of programmers stems from the revelation that “to have someone who doesn’t have a video art practice, such as a dancer, look at the videos and realize that they won’t necessarily select videos that involve dancing,” as Shazly puts it, emphasizes different ways of accessing videos, and repositions the potentiality of one’s relation to them. 

Each programmer has their own impulse behind the selections, some more obvious than others. The most discenerable styles in the programs were Islam Kamal’s preference for slow, elongated works; Ahmed Refaat’s documental tendencies; Alaa Abdelhamid’s interest in found footage; and Mai Elwakil’s emphasis on the body in space. 96 Negatives’s program seemed more specific to the act of selecting than the selections themselves, incorporating the videos within their own argument, their research investigation into the roles and forms of language-in-film and filmic language, asking, “Can a film stutter?”

CVF display at El Semary: Mohamed El Maghraby’s “The Cyborg Doesn’t Know” (2019) [left] and Robbi Cornelissen’s “The Number 9 Sessions” (2019) [right]

How do we negotiate between the intentions of a work on its own and the audience’s experience of having to sit and watch it in a program? Affectively speaking, there were moments where one felt drained by the focus that the work demands, some producing so much anxiety in waiting for the video to end that audiences seemed to applaud because it was finally over. Regardless of filmic techniques or programming choices, with the festival geared more than ever towards audience experience, the fact that this specific affective current threads through the festival begs the question of what this demand for patience does to a public, in a moment when so much is going on. 

Because there are so many different rubrics of relations and entry points into the festival, Mena El Shazly (the artistic director) states that “you can actually navigate through venues, or through the programs, or you can not do anything at all and just walk and do your thing, and you will just run into it.” The intention of promoting an audience’s own agency in how to approach experiencing the festival not only adds to the decentralized nature of it, but is also necessary for accessibility when mediating between contexts, particularly when the festival targets such disparate spaces and demographics this year.

 

Slowly moving tropes down landscapes of representation

Within many of the works selected by the programmers there is a recurring aesthetic phenomenon in which we see a camera moving languorously forward through an empty landscape. Examples include: Om Bori’s “Berlin Zoo Station Reminiscence” (2017), in which the camera slowly floats through a half-constructed digital landscape; Hiroya Sakurai’s “The Stream IX” (2018), where the camera is slowly floating through a narrow stream; and Aurele Ferrier’s “Transitions” (2017) in which a camera slowly floats through deserted suburban landscapes. What is the artists’ fascination with an empty landscape and what aesthetic tropes does this build off, historically speaking? From the age-old history of landscape painting to this type of video art, is the newness of the media a disguise for pretending we’ve gone beyond questions that artists have been asking for centuries? In the words of philosopher Alberto Toscano: “That landscapes are manufactured or man-altered is no late-capitalist discovery.” 

In the work “Anina” (2017) by Alcaeus Spyrou, the director depicts views of landscapes as seen from a container ship along its voyage, with a hyper-aestheticized obsession with the spectacularity of the supply chain. The violence of this logistical cacophony, of capitalism and territory, actually benefits from such modes of representation, as it reinforces these infrastructural landscapes as being the only subject. In reality they are extremely socialized spaces, inoperable without their sociability, not only in their forms of labor (they are places of work, not of natural phenomena), but also in the heavily legal, para-national, and sovereign modes of governmentality that these landscapes simply become artifacts of, and which are erased in their fetishization. 

Still from Aurele Ferrier’s “Transitions” [2017]

The modes of representation imposed onto landscapes has particularly dangerous implications in the lives they erase. For example, in Jan Ijas “On the Art of Set Design” (2018), footage from the artist’s guided tour in North Korea is paired with a narrative voice quoted from Kim Jong Il’s filmmaking treatise “On the Art of Cinema.” As the artist claims of the footage, “everything you see is reminiscent of a theater or film set…” — but we are already expecting this the moment we know that it is a Western artist on tour in North Korea. It’s not only a trope of exoticizing the inaccessible, but also an easy anti-communist statement, maintaining the ideology that capitalism is, on the other hand “not a stage set,” that it is real. This self-serving archetype of North Korea as staged for the “outside world” erases any need to actually view the artist’s footage, as it is only a reflection of the (assumably Western-capitalist) viewer’s projections, reenforcing its supremacy.

Such notions of representation used by the artists are questionable in terms of what they are trying to accomplish in their engagement with the subject matter. For example, Yoshiki Nishimura’s “On the Border” shows a 3D scan of a beach covered in trash, the camera moving across a digitized rendering of this landscape. Although it seems to “speak about” environmental issues (as vague an aspiration as that often is in contemporary art), has seeing a trash-covered beach ever helped beaches become less trash covered? It seems that in the precise moment of climate crisis that we are in, becoming witness to the problem is no longer enough. When such disastrous images become aestheticized we risk fetishizing the earth’s destruction, making it easier to get accustomed to it and reducing the urgency that we need.

 

What could be and could have been

On the other hand, there were works in the festival that avoided the capturing and solidifying of the as-it-is-ness of things, by imagining new possibilities and speculative fictions. Mariam Mekiwi’s Before I Forget (2017) envisions a futuristic secret society of amphibians in the context of a flooded earth. Although it absurdly (and quite hilariously) portrays a completely fictional realm (reflecting devices used in TV genres), it also imagines a scenario that is actually quite strongly predicted by climate scientists, and in that light it doesn’t seem so absurd. The film places the viewer into this possibility and goes on to ask interesting questions, such as when one character dismantles the internet by cutting the cables at the bottom of the sea. Although the simplicity with which he cut the internet is quite humorous, the mystery behind the intention of such a gesture adds a thought-provoking curiosity that lingers beyond the film itself.

Still from Mariam Mikiwi’s Before I Forget [2018]

This science fiction style of futurity is common in a few other works as well, such as Shashwati Talukdar’s “Space Dialogues” (2018), and Tarek Lakhrissi’s “Out of the Blue” (2019). The aesthetic impulses in each of those works tap into familiar contemporary art genre trends and modes of operating, which Lakhrissi, at least, seems to self-reflect on through one of his characters’ seemingly ironic mentions of Octavia Butler, Donna Harraway, etc.

Rather than seeing temporal potential as speculative, Salma Shamel’s “Those That Tremble As If They Were Mad” (2018), speaks to an event that happened as if it happened otherwise, rewriting and alternatively insinuating possibilities for what was, could have been, or might have been, told through a bureaucratic archive of “empty certificates, unsigned contracts, and uncelebrated witnesses.” 

The textual contributions in the catalogue primarily included excerpts from dissertations written for academic studies, about topics related to the moving image. Their role in the festival was not as reflections on the videos selected, but instead they were works/programs themselves. I appreciate that a video festival can challenge this medium-centric question by not only including video works, but also texts that engage with the potentiality of such a media context, looking at histories and systems that substantiate the realm of moving-image discourse. This choice can also be seen as an extension on the question of medium specificity, in relation to the viewing of texts as an affective/aesthetic platform in itself, or in relation to the videos that seem like they could appear on webpages rather than physical space.

Excerpt from Islam Shabana’s “Digital Image as a Transcendental Medium: A Manifesto” [2019]

As futile as it is to sum up a festival at such a vast and expansive scale, it is definitely safe to say that the CVF was a massive feat, and paves the way for CVF’s new ways of operating for years to come, setting new impulses in motion. It is not only about providing the public with access to a large variety of selected videos, but more about asking what to do with them, how to use them, and how to see them. Even in the mere accomplishment of access, it is important that CVF can be a strong resource to share accessibility with a larger audience. Originally I was critical of what end this accessibility is a means to, particularly with the lingering question of why a public needs video art in general, though after talking to many audience members, including aspiring young video artists, I learned how much this accessibility meant to them, how much they learned, and how important shared inspiration, techniques and languages can be for developing one’s own.

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