“There is no use in trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
In May, a small gathering of artists happened in Cairo’s Windsor Hotel. It was a cooking session for the 8th Meeting Points, an international multidisciplinary contemporary arts event that takes place biennially, initiated by Mophradat (formerly the Young Arab Theater Fund) and realized with various partners and hosts.
Meeting Points 8 is dubbed “Both Sides of the Curtain,” and its curators, Giovanni Carmine, Malak Helmy, Raimundas Malašauskas and Christophe Wavelet, invited a group of arts practitioners to spend four days in Cairo together, thinking, presenting and sharing ideas or artworks that will move across sites and times over the next year and a half.
It was just 13 artists, and another handful of invitees from the contemporary art scene here in the city, of which about one third showed up to the semi-public events each night between 7 and 11 pm. During that time, the artists and curators encouraged the visitors to meander between the hotel’s roof and first floor, walking in and out of rooms, sitting on stairs, standing in hallways. They offered situations in their “collective studio,” in which we could observe, listen, talk, dismiss, engage, laugh, drink, smoke, play and gather. It resembled a place of work, where one could see what art does and how it’s done rather than what it shows.
What was intriguing about the minimal concept note describing the event was its unrelatedness to Cairo and the site-specific framing usually used here. There was also no developmental reference, no bi-cultural dialogue background program, no focus on youth, no (post)-revolutionary topic structuring the idea, no mentioning of urban downtown Cairo specificities. It took place outside of a structure that has dominated much non-state-affiliated art production for at least five years, set through the regulation of the arts funding situation in Cairo, which also play into and influence the dynamics of local social networks. Although invited to the event and partly funding Mophradat (Ford Foundation, the Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Pro Helvetica, The British Council and Institute Français Egypt), representatives of European or US funding institutions were not spotted in these four days.
The event was challenging. It feels easier to dismiss and critically judge an artistic cooking session than to lean back and see how it speaks to us — maybe because there is only little space for trial and error due to the pressures of financially precarious existences to always perform successfully (or act as if one is). Perhaps the fact that this side of the contemporary art scene in Cairo is relatively small also makes it difficult to either err or (constructively) criticize: People tend to be polite because they are embedded in a nepotistic, close social framework, or in opposing camps. The grey zone in between is minimal, with only a few individuals who can traverse both sides.
A few of these local and international traversers juggling roles were involved in the Meeting Points event, and may have been partly responsible for the try-and-let-it-happen-atmosphere. It felt uncomplicated and distanced, non-involved and, through seeing the same faces for four days in a row, anonymously familiar. Yet there is a thin line between friendly indifference and fatigue overriding curiosity, which would explain why not much conversation seemed to take place between the various groups of artists, visitors, those staying in the hotel and those arriving later on a daily basis.
Some visitors came for one night, others returned for more. The hotel bar, the meeting point of every night’s beginning, was filled with the humming of the participants who applauded the bartender’s story of the hotel on the third night. Through the hotel staff surrounding, supporting and observing the art happening, the program did feel anchored within its setting. Any initial suspicion due to the political circumstances, specifically with regards to the cultural sector, yielded in the face of the warm welcome provided, and shortly the staff became one of the many parts of the Meeting Points body.
It seemed irrelevant whether or not participants and visitors were smitten by what was presented; one could open up to it — or not. Costumes and choreographies were combined, put to practical use and tested, and some succeeded more than others.
An indicative example is the slightly varying nightly collective sleep sessions run by Myriam Lefkowitz, in which participants lay on a padded floor to be caressed by objects and sounds. This unusual sensual somatic experience was not everyone’s cup of tea, and for some difficult to cope with, but, even if disliked, it opened up discussions about the reactions and behavioral patterns of oneself and others.
Meanwhile, little happenings could be found all over, from playing dominoes to being tattooed. On one landing one could come across Doa Aly’s work free radicals: the performance, exceptionally performed with subtle intensity by Noura Hassanein, in which a recorded voice underlined rhythmic hand gestures and stares that became faster and faster before decelerating again.
Set in the staircase on the way up, a spontaneous contribution from London-based writer and curator Osei Bonsu asked participants to find out whether an object in the hotel between the first and the fourth floors spoke to them, and share the reasons for their attachment to it with the rest of the group. The interweaving of the objects in the space used for the four days with affect and participants’ memories could have been significant, but remained unconvincing and trapped between a desire to show off and a reluctance to share something private.
Peeking into one of the rooms, one could see renowned performance artist Latifa Laâbissi comically uttering words in an incomprehensible language, reenacting what could be read as a samurai’s suicide by abdomen-cutting, seppuku. Her grimacing expressive white-painted face with thick black eyebrows drawn on it and the use of body and voice to represent two people in a dialogue left some spectators between awe and a childish urge to respectfully giggle.
The same guestroom hosted Nida Ghouse and participating artists who read from her writing around the Afro-Asian Writers Association and affiliated journal Lotus, which was founded in 1958 and transferred its headquarters from Colombo to Cairo in 1962. The material, which was published as a series of articles in Mada Masr in 2014, was here embellished with archival images and continues to feel timely.
Another reading was of a play, constructed by Marnie Slater out of notes found in the Jersey archive of French artist couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Cahun and Moore lived in Jersey (a Channel Island between France and the UK) from 1937, where they narrowly escaped death for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda to German soldiers and creating the illusion of a large-scale resistance movement. Despite the rich material at hand, the content of the bilingual play was presented quite monotonously (by Slater, Clare Noonan and Cairo-based artist collective Cairo Bats) and largely without context, making it difficult to follow. Yet wandering thoughts gave more sensory detail to the room we were in, sitting on beds, looking at an empty wall that bore the shade of a frame, trying to not get pricked by a gigantic cactus someone must have brought in for the reading.
Up on the roof, hidden behind water tanks, one could follow a trail of light installations to find a small fountain-like sculpture by Sidy Benamar. On the third day, Slater and Noonan invited everyone to free home-made cocktails, which were drunk while conversing and glancing at a screening of an impressive 1920s performance by dancer Valeska Gert, who turned out to be the creator of the samurai performance reenacted by Laâbissi.
On the last day, semi-hidden photographs of people and objects shot by the inseparable Swiss artist duo Rico & Michael could be found, placed near or in the place where they had been taken over the past four days. The duo also performed a choreographed wrestling situation, with a few amorous moments contradicting the strength they displayed. The day ended with the noteworthy and ecstatic DJ set by Aross Aringa (1127 and Alas) at downtown club After Eight.
The serenity that surrounded this Meeting Points studio session might be owed to the time at hand, and to the growing familiarity of the faces of various backgrounds and ages encountered daily. Both meant less pressure for participants and visitors alike, and created a community through which it became apparent that there is a lack of one, or a vanishing of clusters like this — and not only in Cairo.
These collectives and collective structures can obstruct the logic of the market and of meritocracy, and oppose the sameness induced by competitive creative economies based on individual merit and individualized career paths, but they disappear and are swallowed for profit. In the cooking session no audience numbers needed to be counted and no instantaneous shoulder-patting acknowledgement was uttered by spectators, putting the four days in slow motion at a time when numbers and swiftness are highly valued.
The competitive environment in which we’re all embedded might increase productivity, yet the pressure hinders any thinking outside of the box or developing a sense of solidarity and public spirit. In a global society where everyone constantly evaluates each other, and friendliness is commercialized and rated in a currency of stars and likes, aimless friendship seems all but impossible. The idea of community or collaboratively generated commons is capitalized in similar ways: through numbers of followers, friends, audience members. These subtle and normalized techniques converge to weaken collective standards or solidarities, make it impossible to find long-term funding to slow down to allow creativity to happen, and leave no time or meaning for meetings without clear purpose and instant profit in order to develop thoughts that seem impossible.
Note: Mada Masr culture editor Jenifer Evans worked on the logistical side of the Meeting Points event.