Against helplessness in the arts
 
 
Courtesy: Ayman Ramadan
 

There were a few days last month when it seemed certain that the building housing Townhouse gallery’s main space, among other businesses, homes and facilities, would be demolished.

Alexandra Stock has written beautifully and in depth about that frenzied and mournful week, and Townhouse can claim an unusually large number of people who care about its survival. The reasons why have been rhapsodized endlessly; it has built its international and local reputation on its social interconnectedness with the street and its unusually broad audience and artistic reach.

Yet for those of us invested in the non-ministry-affiliated, non-profit art scene — at least those whose livelihoods and homes were not threatened by these events — the collapse had a fatalistic quality. It felt like it didn’t simply start the day the building’s structure failed, but was part of a much longer process.

If you have attempted to work within this particular art scene you will know the state’s untransparent distribution of cultural resources, its lack of understanding of contemporary art, and the way that security forces tend to work at cross-purposes with cultural freedoms. These are experienced in a miasma of hopelessness, or at best a (thoroughly justified) sense of embattled righteousness — mindsets that are exceptionally difficult to avoid and arguably underpin nearly every appeal for alternative cultural support we ever make; they define us.

It’s neither a conspiracy theory nor entirely a matter of fact to perceive the Townhouse building collapse on a continuum of general cultural decay and state antagonism. But with the hidebound condition of contemporary independent culture, it’s hard to think otherwise, especially lately, when state aggression towards the arts has gone into overdrive. Although the building’s ill-repair was about private neglect, its hasty condemnation and police trashing were all too easily felt as part of this long legacy of state control, neoliberal land grabs, and political processes that mistrust the self-determination and thought freedoms that art offers. And while the political climate allows this brutal mistrust to play out on an unprecedented scale, it naturally barely even registers in comparison to more straightforward human rights abuses.

That story is valid. But all the same, I am proposing to date the roots of the recent emergency at Townhouse back to another moment entirely: December 31, 2012.

This is when Bassam al-Baroni, Mahmoud Khaled and Mona Marzouk issued a quiet announcement that their organization, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), was to close.

“[W]e have come to the conclusion that [ACAF’s] role — a balancing act between an open minded approach to education, a quality based presentation of art, and a context based criticality — is no longer sustainable as Egypt and Alexandria shift and fluctuate both positively and negatively in a period of heightened political and social transitions.”

The note said it was hopefully a pause, but they haven’t reopened. (In a recent update, they also announced that even the online archive is no longer available.) Aside from the importance of the founders’ individual careers (which have enriched us as much as their institutional work), a viable interpretation was that they had succumbed to the unique exhaustions of trying to sustain an artistic sphere in Egypt.

Much later, a friend told me that the ACAF’s founders’ biggest surprise had been the lack of response from the wider artistic community. I was one of those silent people. I remember sitting back and feeling bad, figuring how tough things are, and wondering what was to come. But not one of these things I did out loud, and apparently I wasn’t alone in that. As I recall, in those days when we were also stunned by the deadly protest events on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, there was no significant collective reaction.

The same muteness followed when Cairene art space Beirut closed in May 2015. And, if we include how neoliberal capital affects the art scene, also when the night club Vent closed in June 2015, and also now that CIC has to seek a new home.

While an international outcry did accompany the Townhouse events and the imprisonment of writer Ahmed Naji, this was because these were incidents that were very dramatic and didn’t require much depth of contextual understanding for an outsider to grasp their brutality. But the longer discussion — about how to exist, how to work and how to disseminate that work — is not happening, particularly not at home.

The present reason for this silence is obvious, and serious: that speaking out can put people in danger, in particular those who are legally responsible for NGOs or who are authors of even marginally critical work. This, combined with the expense of venues and the lack of production money, drives us to make galleries, meetings, book launches and experimental music gatherings in private apartments. We retreat, and burrow in depression and parties. At times this does not feel too bad at all. Dropping a concern with institutional language or the bricks-and-mortar aspects of sustainability can be deeply liberating. There is a whole raft of art institutional discussion about scaling down to intimate encounters and combining private and interpersonal experience. But that alone is not an art scene, especially not when it is done under duress. What cannot be ignored is that we are part of the public sphere, and that we owe it to each other to remain so.

What’s the alternative? This isn’t a call for activism. It’s not even a call for action. But it is a call to recognize that the beginning of our end is when we stop reacting collectively. That means genuinely understanding ourselves as a community, thinking as one, and when it is safe, speaking and acting as one.

We are not just, as Lina Attalah put it in mid-2013, “back to the margins.” As I said, we have long worn that particular hair shirt pretty well — in the heyday of foreign funding, we even turned it to our advantage. But with additional brutality we now face the difference between marginalization and evaporation, and with the current lack of any other space to express it, the only difference may be in how we conceive ourselves. As a community that could have flooded ACAF with emails and calls after that announcement on December 31 2012, or more recently that could have sent cash to keep their archive online, or that would have shown up and helped Townhouse move their stuff that night in April when they thought they were homeless, because honestly I was surprised at the low turnout.

There is not a single cultural figure or institution mentioned in this article that I unequivocally support, that I haven’t had a bit of a fight with, or whose institutional practice or curatorial work I haven’t been deeply critical of. I bet I share this viewpoint with any art-invested person reading this. This is good, natural and necessary. All independent institutions are critical by virtue of the fact that they provide an alternative to whatever else existed. When I want to criticize them, I don’t just do it on behalf of myself but on behalf of an assumed wider community. Because it turns out that, whatever the shape of the institution or an initiative, whatever their mistakes, hypocrisies or beautiful achievements, it is the community that they foster that is the most important work of all.

I’m talking about the community that organizes reading events of Naji’s work, as Marcia Lynx Qualey recently did to ensure nobody forgets he is in prison; the community that would actually follow through on the crowdfunding impulse for Townhouse renovation, artist support, new rental premises for CIC, and keeping the ACAF archive online; a community that would organize, as CIC did in January, a meeting to exchange knowledge about the raids and pressures we were experiencing — even if that meeting ultimately concludes that it’s safer not to take major action. This doesn’t matter: the fact that the meeting took place already told me that while buildings can fall, institutions can be pushed out, and people can be imprisoned, a community continues. We think we are so helpless, that we can do so little, but as soon as we give in to the idea that we are nothing but private citizens we’ve given up 99 percent of the battle. 

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Mia Jankowicz