Thursday the 7th Cairo Video Festival opened and at around 7 pm, I went to Zawya to attend the first night of screenings. This was a bit jarring, because typically these days you go to galleries to watch experimental video and artists’ films.
It was jarring, but I was happy. I’ve always been more comfortable in the cinema. I like the anonymity of the black box, the darkness, having to sit down, set beginning and ending times, isolation from the people around me, but also at the same time feeling their presence. The white cube comes with its own set of conventions and rules for behavior, and it is bright — you’re supposed to think there. In the black box you’re supposed to just get overwhelmed by your desires, right? The white and black box comparison has always fascinated me. This is all to say that the way a work is displayed influences the way it is received, the way it’s experienced and hence its meaning.
Watching Canadian filmmakers Rick Fisher and Don Rice’s five-minute Arcadia (2014 – it can be seen here), which consists of digitally augmented panning shots of lush landscapes, I had a strong feeling that it has to be a multi-channel installation work. Googling led me to discover that indeed there is also a multichannel version of Arcadia. The film depends very much on the spectator’s proprioceptive sense, using the mimetic powers of the moving image to invoke a play in your sense of balance. Being in a cinema seat, something is lost. I imagined myself standing and walking within an installation with this work surrounding me. My connection with the movements within its frame would have been stronger if the body was involved, not just the eye. So, in this case I would have traded my seat in the cinema for a standing spot in a gallery.
For Japanese filmmaker Umi Ishihara’s nine-minute Desktop Treasure (2014 – trailer here), however, the black box was an ideal exhibition space. It explores the life of a teenager in Japan who lives through her online persona, and the YouTube video format, if it could be thought of as a format, comes across in its language. The camera work, editing and colors all bring to mind these “online sensation” videos people upload to personal YouTube channels. Because cinema has always been a space where stardom is made, where the faces and bodies of actors and actresses become our fetishes in the darkness of the cinema hall, it is the ideal context to explore how a person’s image can become exploited and sexualized.
Thursday also saw the premiere of Egyptian filmmaker Nork Zakarian’s eight-minute Elizabeth of Nazareth (2014), a reinterpretation of the biblical story of Elizabeth, cousin of Mary and mother of John, but now in a war-torn Jerusalem. A recent surge in video works with religious themes to me indicates a going back into art history, but such works also gain an added layer of meaning because of the specifics of video as medium. Unlike film, it is not a medium of re-presentation but of presentation – because video feedback loops can happen in real time, its temporality is that of the present, of the event that stops time even as it screens in a cinema. Religious themes lend themselves nicely to the medium, and Zakarian builds on this idea of ever-present video. His story about a miraculous pregnancy has an eerie feeling of the invisible suddenly becoming visible.
But the other thing that becomes suddenly visible, in addition to the child, are fighter planes. This plays with the notion of the miracle and how wars, unfathomable as they are, can be an extension of a religious worldview: God is punishing those who have sinned. I would have really liked to watch this film in a church, as in such a location the idea of the image that connects to the transcendent — what Christian paintings have often claimed to do — could have been even more interesting. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal 1966 film Andrei Rublev the camera brought to the spectator this sense of transcendence some religions have invested the image with, and we find similar floating camera sequences in Zakarian’s work, especially the opening scene.
Elizabeth of Nazareth also seems to suggest that media coverage of wars and dead bodies has brought that transcendence into every home through television. What’s the difference between having a fighter plane appear on the screen and John appearing in his mother’s womb and then on her arm?
Sadly technical issues interrupted the screening of Mark Lotfy’s Do As You Said (2013), so it will be screened again tonight, also at Zawya.
Like last year, the Cairo Video Festival this year has a variety of display formats. In addition to one-off screenings at Zawya and the French Institute there are ongoing exhibitions at the Contemporary Image Collective and Medrar. I am interested to see how these formats influence the dynamics of reception. We are in for an exciting program and I’m especially looking forward to seeing what Egyptian and Arab artists bring to the table. At her book launch a couple of days ago at Townhouse, Laura Marks mentioned that Egypt is quickly becoming an Arab epicenter for electronic media arts. I am ready.
The Cairo Video Festival runs though December 24. See the program here.