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A review with a curatorial task: On the 8th Cairo Video Festival
What happens when a place's locality is taken for granted as detached from external relations?

Organized by Medrar for Contemporary Art, this year’s Cairo Video Festival was an ambitious collection of events, screenings and exhibitions spread throughout downtown over two weeks. One hundred and nineteen works were nominated or selected by the festival team and three jury members: Mohamed Shawky Hassan (Egypt), Ghassan Salhab (Lebanon) and Jeroen Kooijmans (Netherlands).

The selection of works was not curated with a central focus, and if the incoherent diversity was intentional, this could be seen as a context for accessing a database of knowledge about what international artists are working on, as a type of event-based library of video works. It was separated into programs, some curated by Medrar and some curated by invited collaborators, selecting works from those chosen by Medrar and the jury. Some of these programs only existed in the website/catalogue and in reality were spread between venues and events, while others were almost independent events, such as the promising “Videofreex.” But it was impossible to have reliable expectations due to the lack of curatorial intention. As a result, the onus shifted onto the audience to make their own groupings between related works, and in a sense, this article could be considered as my attempt to do that.

To me, the festival as a whole spoke of the internet, of romance, of trippy-ness, and of that rather vague category of “the everyday.” The trippy-ness could be seen as a sign of relief from over-politicized or serious tones, or a playful exercise of technique, although in many cases I would have liked to see a better grip on the relationship between technique and function: Several works screened mistook somber tonal strategies for inherent depth, or randomness for intinsic complexity, or an awareness of the camera’s presence for saying something about viewership on its own.

In an attempt to take on the curatorial task as an audience member, I saw that some of the works, when reflected upon in relation to each other, foregrounded the complexities and mechanics of seeing a location as a site of relation to elsewhere. This was exemplified in Maha Maamoun’s Dear Animal (screened at Zawya), Metasitu’s Tora Bora (installed at the looped-video exhibition at Hoda Shaarawi Street), and Flatform’s Quantrum (installed at the looped-video exhibition at Medrar), for example. Rather than writing about them as independent works, I will look at the specific parts of these works that form a thread between each other, in an attempt to understand what the context of Cairo Video Festival provides as an architecture of thought and conversation positioned within the walls of downtown Cairo, other than just a library of apparently quite arbitrarily selected video works.

Maamoun’s 24-minute work, made last year, shifts back and forth between a fictional narrative unfolding in Cairo (written by Haytham El-Wardany, in which a drug dealer is turned into a goat) and a story of letters sent to friends from India by Egyptian director-producer Azza Shaaban. The words that are spoken in India, addressed to “Animal,” exist in reference to what was left behind, defining the locality of India by not being Cairo. The words to Cairo, and Shaaban’s reasons for being in India, make the two places fold into themselves, so that the letters sent become less of India, and through the use of fiction and the goat as addressee, the story of the drug dealers becomes less of Cairo. India becomes Cairo, and Cairo India. Through this, as the catalogue says, the “animal, real or imagined, brings both stories together and apart.” Perhaps seeing a city through its absence can speak to what the fictional truths of that city leave behind.

Metasitu’s Tora Bora (7:38 minutes, 2016) depicts a Jerusalem stone quarry in the West Bank, and the journey of a stone from the mine to the construction site of a cathedral in Sao Paulo. One can’t actually tell which part was filmed where, and that distortion provides an understanding of the stone being the place, rather than the location itself, as we constantly watch the stone as it exists between many different locations. There are shots from the warehouse, the grinding, the storing, the transporting, and excavating, and all of these processes develop more of a locality than coordinates on a map would. The locality of Brazil is spoken through the locality of the Palestinian quarry, and vice versa. Their relation in itself shapes the way these spaces are independently defined.

In Flatform’s Quantrum (8 minutes, 2015), a small Italian town on a seemingly distant hill appears like an architectural model illuminated by interior lighting. The work is technically masterful, creating confusion about whether or not it is a digital effect or documentation of a site-specific performance in which a large beam of light swings over a village as if it is a single bulb hanging in a room. Sometimes we appear to be watching a small maquette, other times an actual town in the distance. This fluctuation in scale, of distance overlapping onto itself, allows us to question our understanding of how we measure the space between locations, and what the scale of that distance contributes to our notion of relation.

In Quantrum the two locations are one and the same, but seen as different versions at different scales of distance. Here the movement taking place is that of the perspective. In Maamoun’s work, the multiplicity lies in a personal escape from a place and the experience of looking back in from the outside. In Metasitu’s work, the multiplicity is not as much escape or psychological intimacy, but economic and logistical. It speaks to the world of political and financial interrelations, of theft. When put in conversation with each other, these three works create possibilities for how to discuss spaces as being in a constant flux of causality and influence, shaped by migrating people, products, and frames of reference.

Another work in the festival, however, inadvertently showed how defining sites by their perspectival relations can be oppressive and harmful. Traveling With Maxim Gorkiy (10 minutes, 2014), by Bernd Lutzeler and Kolja Kunt, depicts indigenous peoples at different locations, dancing for tourists, along with shots of white people on cruises wearing blackface and attempting to appropriate the traditional dress of the locals while partying. Viewing this work was a difficult and painful experience, yet at no moment did this effect seemed intentional. The makers’ statement, in the catalogue, pretends that the work depicts “flat silhouettes of people. Their heads depicted with no expression, formal gestures. In the background, a little bit of everyday life: the hard, square, stone architecture of blackish mush of color or mud.”

These four works remind us of what is reinforced when the locality of an individual place is taken for granted as independent and holistic, detached from external relations. The task of negotiating relations based on locality is important to keep in mind when organizing a festival with “Cairo” in the name, based on international applications. In thinking about how being between two places relates to the context of the festival, maybe it lies in the battle between the Lebanese, Dutch, and Egyptian jury members: The multiplicity of completely non-cohesive selections might speak to the distance in scale and multiplicity being discussed between them.

The 8th Cairo Video Festival ran from February 5-28.