How to measure the Mediterranean
Take to the Sea at Nile Sunset Annex

This is an edited version of a conversation between Take to the Sea and Tarek Shalaby. Take to the Sea is an artist group composed of Lina Attalah (editor in chief at Mada), Laura Cugusi and Nida Ghouse. Take to the Sea’s first solo exhibition, titled “A Roomful of Lost Memory,” is currently installed at Nile Sunset Annex, an artist-run space (one of the cofounders of which is Jenifer Evans, who writes for Mada). Tarek Shalaby is a blogger, a Revolutionary Socialist, and a creative director at ThePlanet.

Viewers of the exhibition encounter a short wall text, and are then faced with a room that is completely blocked off by a looming wall of hard drives. The invitations for the show are floppy discs.

Tarek Shalaby: So for the invite — why did you use a floppy?

Take to the Sea: It was an idea.

TS: And it’s a great idea. But it’s a little inconsistent with the hard drives —

TTTS: Why?

TS: Because this [floppy] is inaccessible not because it’s broken, but because it’s out of technology, it’s out of touch. It’s within itself a lost memory, because you can no longer access —

TTTS: But you could. It’s only inaccessible because it’s not in everyday use, but it might very well be functional, and if you went the distance and actually found a reader, these might work. While those [hard drives] probably not, even though you have all the technology, they’re damaged beyond repair.

TS: Ok. But I think it was short of something. Of some sort of interaction. But to display it this way, the fact that it fills up the entire room but you can’t see beyond it, gives the sense that there’s infinity, there could be a million hard disks inside, and there probably is — I think that worked really well.

Was there any reason for stacking them in columns, as opposed to randomly? Maybe like bricks or … after Nile Sunset Annex told me about the context [of your work], all I can think of is Africans going to Europe, how they stuff themselves on ships that sink on their way to Italy.

TTTS: Exactly — that’s the first reference. Back in 2008, an early phase of the work was when we were going to villages from which migrants are known to leave to Italy and other countries.

TS: Where?

TTTS: We used to go to the points of departure around Alexandria and Rashid and Nile Delta villages, and we used to just talk to people a lot. One story that stayed with us was that of a returnee migrant who tried to cross and was deported back, and he was talking about being stuffed in the fridge of the fishing boat, where they would generally keep the fish.

TS: No way.

TTTS: Initially crossings happened from Libya to Lampedusa, which is a very short journey. You would take smaller boats called zodiacs, the kind of boat you take just to arrive from ship to shore. Then, because land crossings to Libya were stalled, people started moving from the coast of Egypt, which is a much longer journey.

TS: Really?

TTTS: This was happening right when we started our research. They started using bigger boats, and they had to hide in the fish compartment until they got to international waters.

We’d been thinking a lot about migration in relation to memory, memory you don’t yet have. Most often it’s thought of in terms of economic conditions — the aspiration of living a certain life — or political irregularity or legality, but we were also interested in it in relation to the possibility of producing memory. And there’s this preventative power structure not wanting you to be able to have this memory. This measure of the human body that wants to cross the Mediterranean became a measure of how many bodies you can fit, the body that wanted this memory suddenly became a physical —

TS: Unit.

TTTS: So we were very interested in the idea of this unit of measure-memory as infinite — the memory a person could have, but then it becomes reduced to his or her physical dimensions. That was one of the multiple starting points for this project.

We were also talking to a lot of people that tried and failed to go. Every village we went to had a different ecology of how this worked out, but the one recurrent factor for people who had tried to go and failed was that they would just lie in bed thinking about the failure, as if you were trying to do an exam and you’d failed.

The depression of not making it across was somehow because of the social pressures in the specific context they lived in. If you didn’t make it across, you couldn’t have that house, you couldn’t have that marriage, you couldn’t come back and show off that wealth, and that definitely led to a feeling of being lost.

They would actually try again in many cases, even though they would see death or insurmountable risks. They would fail and have terrible encounters with security on both ends, but still try again. And this whole fixation with that imaginary of what could be is something we’re very interested in.

TS: It is very interesting.

TTTS: This imagination that you’re being policed not to have somehow. They spend so much time either raising the money — they put a lot of money into it — talking to different smugglers or actually selling land, going and failing and trying again. This fixation is interesting.

And there was another kind of obsession we realized we were having. Because of this shift in departure points, we were curious as to how long the journey had now become. So we always asked everyone we interviewed who had made this journey from the north coast of Egypt, how long does it take you? It is a fixed distance, yet we never got a fixed answer.

TS: Really?

TTTS: We could never conclude how long it actually takes you from Rashid to Sicily. This notion of being lost and disoriented is something we’ve been interested in in terms of the sea.

One of the authors we return to is Fernand Braudel. He’s considered someone who re-oriented the discipline of history by using historical imagination to tell us about the past. He’s written two major volumes about the Mediterranean in the 16th century. In one short section he takes on the task of measuring the dimensions of the Mediterranean and he decides to use letters as his unit of measurement.

So he tried to calculate how long it took for a letter to get from point A to point B. Post was not an entirely reliable service, and letters were, in a sense, a luxury commodity. Figuring out how long they took to travel was a way of trying to understand what command the economy of the 16th-century man had over the Mediterranean.

Anyway, at some point he shifts his emphasis to narrative, and if letters arrived too soon, they were “fresh as a salmon,” but mostly they arrived too late — the news had already got there. He goes on with this really adamant insistence on this exercise of letters as a unit to measure the dimensions of the Mediterranean world.

TS: He wanted to make it a standard unit of measurement …

TTTS: But he concludes that the Mediterranean is not just physical distance, but also something that goes back in time. At some point Braudel says you need a fair dose of imagination to actually succeed in this exercise. In our attempts to measure distance we also took on this really tedious endeavor, even trying to count the accidents that happened and were reported from 2005 through 2008 through all the Arabic press.

TS: Oh my god!

TTTS: We have this crazy excel sheet of how many people died and all the newspaper clippings. But of course you will never know because some were never reported, and are just at the bottom of the seabed, so again the impossibility of actually measuring, of adding it all up, is something we’ve been interested in — trying but knowing that you will not know.

We got invited to the Manifesta biennale in 2010 in Murcia in the south of Spain. When they assigned us a room, we thought, how can we fill this room with art? And we thought about the stories the migrants were telling us of fitting in the boat, and the footage a smuggler made showing his boats and the dimensions and how he fit the bodies in. And we thought, as they were saying they were packed inside the boat like sardines, we could try to fill the room with sardine cans and make all sorts of calculations about how long it takes, for example, from when the fish gets fished to being in cans, transported around the world, and ending up in a place.

So we started working on this impossible measurement task, and it was not only about filling the room but also about calculating distance. But we thought sardine cans would somehow be a one-liner. Making the switch to hard drives here made sense, because we were concerned with the memory of two hard drives — they are the same size, but one can have 14 GB of memory and the other 500. The same physical unit can have multiple units of measurement.

TS: As opposed to cans, which have a fixed number of sardines.

TTTS: Yes.

TS: Unless you have different sized sardines.

TTTS: The choice of hard drives is partly because in this fixed unit or fixed human body, there’s this range of potential memory.

TS: So with every human being, the size of his or her memory is not directly related to his physical size? That’s interesting, because some people might have a lot more memories than others, even though their physical dimensions are the same. And then you’re transporting these people with their memories and, like you said, with the memories they’re about to make.

TTTS: And even if the different hard drives have the same size memory, if it’s sounds or words it’s also different: how do you compare how many hours of music or how many hours of talks or how many kilometers of written words?

TS: You could have five minutes of video or thousands of words and pages.

TTTS: Exactly. You could have a whole archive of texts because it doesn’t occupy the same space as video, or another kind of memory. So this was very interesting — that it’s never the same size and you cannot really quantify or measure it, even if you have all the information — you might have all the details of every hard drive, but you can never really know how much, or how big, or how long or how …

TS: The more context you share with me, the more depth and fascination I have with this and what you’re doing, but obviously you can’t communicate everything. It might actually spoil it if you communicate everything. Sometimes it’s nice to leave just a little bit and then have people, you know —

TTTS: Yeah, we’ve talked many times about the impossibility to condense all this work and research and information in one work or sentence. The sentence on the wall here is a mix of other things, but for us it’s very clear that there could’ve been many other sentences.

TS: I think that’s the beauty of it, or that would’ve been the beauty of it, if you had spent a lot of time with the sentence —

TTTS: We also had many discussions about trying to tell more about how we got there and why, but now we have all the additional layers, very personal individual layers of meaning from the feedback of people who have no idea about our mental journeys and processes.

It’s interesting for us to see that you can actually tell these things without telling them. For us it makes sense, but we don’t know if it does for other people, so it’s a little bit of a risk. With what you’re telling us, and what other people told us, we feel it’s better than saying it all at the beginning and making it clear — it would leave less space for completing the work with your imagination.

TS: It’s true, but before Nile Sunset Annex gave me a bit of context I just looked at it on a very abstract level. So what you’re saying is correct — I was fascinated by memories and there is memory there, you can physically see it, but you can’t access it. But the sentence, there’s nothing to it except its content — the way it’s displayed, it’s not written on a piece of paper to imply that it’s related to the installation. So since it was completely separate, I thought I should read it and think of it as poetry. And when I read it, I did not think it was poetry.

TTTS: Read it out poetically, how does it sound?

TS: “so monstrously unjust” — first of all, the fact that it starts with a small ‘s,’ that means I’m halfway through a sentence. I would say that’s not working.

TTTS: Did you know that punctuation is a colonial concept anyway?  

TS: And you could’ve written it in Swahili. You could have written it in French. You could’ve written it in broken Italian, really bad Italian. If we’re going to question it, I don’t think English is appropriate, because it doesn’t represent any of the people involved…

TTTS: English is the language we speak together to do this work.

TS: Alright, we use the colonial grammar with each other and we use breaks and commas and exclamation points and —

TTTS: So the only issue that you have with this is that the ‘s’ is not capital.

TS: No, I have a couple of issues. I don’t like “so monstrously unjust.” It makes me think of something gigantic, physically big, like you’re really weak in front of it and there’s nothing you can do. I’m sure you can relate it to getting on a ship and going to Europe, but if we’re going to do that it can very easily connect to anything. So I’m just looking at it as a sentence that makes me think on multiple levels, plays with my emotions, makes me act on my mind and heart. “so monstrously unjust” doesn’t make me think that way. And it also gives the impression that you are trying to do something physically, but you can’t, because you’re not strong enough.

TTTS: You’re making it work even more!

TS: If this is what goes through someone’s head, you wouldn’t say “so monstrously unjust,” and there would be more breaks and breaths, there would be punctuation that makes you stop and pause.

TTTS: We have the line break.

TS: But punctuation would make me read it in a certain way, and think about it the way the person who said it thought about it, at the same pace.

TTTS: Ok. Something you said earlier made me think of the discussion about how much context we provided, and of course it’s valid.

TS: It’s not like you just came up with a great idea and then put it together. You actually put a lot of work into this.

TTTS: It started as an intent — we didn’t know whether we would get the hard drives. There was also discussion of how to fill the room, and what’s possible and what’s not possible, talking to architects — the labor aspect of it is interesting. We also went to Bustan computer mall 10 times and didn’t strike the deal. Until a few days before the opening, we didn’t have enough drives … but we kept trying

Nile Sunset Annex: I think we [Nile Sunset Annex] felt like the process of trying to get the drives and what would happen with that was the work as well. So the work was being made during all that time, even though we didn’t know what the final result was going to be.

TTTS: Exactly, and this has come to be my experience producing in general, across the board, not just for art. Thinking so much of an idea becomes the work in and of itself. At the risk of bringing Mada into the conversation, Mada at some point was an impossibility — it just didn’t make any sense to try to put together a newspaper, but we couldn’t think past the fact that we’re thinking about it intensively, and that’s it and that’s the work, you know? And something comes out of it, and in many ways even revolution is about that — you do a revolution without necessarily knowing.

TS: Tell me about it.

NSA: They went to see millions of people in different parts of the city to ask how they could get these hard drives. In the end it was a teenager at the Friday market who just happened to be there on that day. They bumped into this very small guy, and he was the guy who managed to get the hard drives.

TTTS: We struck the deal and he took us to a completely different area of the city where all this broken and lost stuff, bikya objects, get collected and sorted and sold. So it’s another story of the city that we didn’t know we would find in the process of doing this work. We saw things that we would never had seen otherwise.

TS: That’s awesome.

TTTS: We decided to go for hard drives, but it’s only because it’s Cairo and nothing really dies in Cairo, it’s always circulating. We thought if we go around and explore, at some point we will find them. We’ve been interested, from day one, in how risk was somehow configured in this journey.

Also, the technology that these hard drives use is at the frontiers of disappearance, so in two years’ time if we wanted to do this work it may be impossible to find them. They still are recycled, they exist in the market, as relics, their wealth lies in their metal more than anything else. They can be transformed into something else. You can take the aluminium out and recycle it, sell it to China, where they make another hard drive that then gets sold here.

NSA: I really like that the artwork is completely mute in a way. It’s a very formal gesture which you just see as this blocking off, but at the same time there’s so much content. It’s not telling you what to think, it’s just a physical object, but there are all these stories you can guess at by looking at it. That’s what I like about objects.

TTTS: For us this is actually a very minimalist work. It’s just about a very simple gesture, filling a room with something, it’s nothing more or less than that. But it has these other layers. 


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