I’ve had extended discussions with artist Sherif El Azma about how video art has developed in Egypt since the term emerged during workshops at the Swiss Arts Council – Pro Helvetia in 1990. Ever since it appeared on the local art scene, various obstacles have obstructed its development. We have talked about why it is difficult to study this art form in Egypt, for example — mainly because the reference books, history books, analysis and criticism don’t tend to appear in Arabic, but also because state-affiliated arts colleges ignore it, despite graduates’ attempts to publicize and develop the term. This has created an interesting history, full of interesting mechanisms to develop video art amid various frustrations.
Our conversation started in April 2014, when I participated in a workshop called “Videos from Hell” led by Azma at Janaklees Studio in Alexandria. In the workshop, he briefly presented a history of video movements worldwide, going over a group of classifications he thought were a good introduction for an intensive course on video art. We also spent a lot of time discussing the audience: how aware people are of moving images, and how their televisual memory can mean they outsmart the video artist.
I found that our discussions on the nature, particularity, memory and collective awareness of our audience were a good introduction for later conversations about what television we thought had an indirect effect on the development of video art. We started exploring the origins of some tendencies in Egyptian video art, in the hopes of finding a starting point.
Two good case studies emerged: The video footage of the assassination of Anwar Sadat (1981) and the Ramadan riddle show “Fawazeer Fattuta” (1982). Not only have they helped familiarize audiences with the potential images have in terms of the unusual, but they also initiated, unintentionally, a passion that formed a new fan base in the “television community” — a passion closely linked to the later emergence of local video art.
The link between TV and video art
Before the video of Sadat’s assassination — at the annual victory parade commemorating the crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war — was aired on Egyptian TV on October 6, 1981, the public was familiar with local TV language as a deliberate and premeditated logical language that conveyed information and news in a simple and unsophisticated manner, exemplified by the standardized camera angles, such as static frames in talk shows, interviews and leaders’ speeches. This internationally recognized TV language created a “TV community” where viewers are forced to focus on and emotionally interact with the content, instead of viewing more actively and allowing room to deconstruct the aesthetics of the image itself.
This television language has been broadcast in millions of homes, and its romantic hypnotic effect is like cloning the speaker on screen inside viewers’ living rooms — like the broadcast of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches for example, which created the effect of hosting him at home to address you personally, helping forge a strong identification with him.
So viewers’ relationship with the content of broadcast television back then bordered on the surreal or metaphysical, based on a belief in revelation, not unlike the apparition of the Virgin Mary at the Coptic Church in Cairo’s Zaytun neighborhood in 1968. For the thousands who gathered, her “presence” transcended time and place — one onlooker described it thus: “The Holy Mother looked at the crowds smiling, wearing a blue dress under a red robe.”
Sadat’s assassination starts the deconstruction journey
But as a result of the chaos of Sadat’s assassination, the official and acknowledged language of television was disturbed. The plan was to film according to a written and timed screenplay, with a defined beginning and end, based on how the parade was arranged by the military. One cameraman filmed the viewing platform where Sadat and other officials sat, and another captured the artillery passing by the platform and the surrounding motorbikes, and a third captured the air force’s Phantom aircraft in the sky.
But the soldier-assassins took the cameramen by surprise, violating the parade and the TV script by firing at the platform where Sadat was sitting. As each cameraman abandoned the screenplay to follow the event with their camera, they helped deconstruct the mechanisms of this official language. TV viewers witnessed, for the first time, the cinematographer’s viewpoint as they physically interacted with their cameras, and their emotional decision to make the camera an extension of their bodies. The camera became purely a means of expressing their inner reactions, making the broadcast image a direct translation of the fear and agitation of an unknown person, the person behind the camera, for the viewers. This indicated that the televised image isn’t simply a fantastic inspiration or inexplicable phenomenon, but the result of pure human manipulation.
As a result, Egyptian viewers were able to analyze how the official TV language was systematically used in filming any later event. As they were able to decipher the language, inspiration became an image medium coming from the broadcast station, like the nasal human sound behind moulid puppets: the viewer knows that it is a person talking and not the puppet, and has the right to reject the trick or fall for it. Paradoxically, the audience also came to think, at least subconsciously, that television broadcast is the extension of a human body, which reflects the consciousness of the person holding the camera.
Video as the viewer’s narcissistic reflection
Fattuta is a little person wearing a green suit and a large yellow pair of shoes, a character played by comedian Samir Ghanem in Fahmy Abdel Hamid’s Ramadan riddle show of the same title, aired in 1982. When the show was broadcast, viewers were curious about the truth of this little person, surrounded by much larger furniture and people (including the presenter Sammura, also played by Ghanem). Many viewers asked whether Fattuta was a real person or just a character played by Ghanem and, if Ghanem was in fact Fattuta, how was the character performed? These questions lingered in the minds of many who grew up in the time of Fattuta.
The technique now known as chroma keying (compositing two images or video streams together based on color hues) had been used more primitively in cinema during the mid twentieth century, as a logical solution to filming lookalikes or twins — like with the actor Naguib al-Rihani in Niazi Mostafa’s Si Omar (1941) and Ismail Yassin in Ismail Yaseen fil Tayaraan (Ismail Yassin in Aviation, 1959).
But Fattuta went beyond logic — it was actually against logic. It shifted the qareen (a person’s spiritual doppelgänger in Islamic tradition) from an imaginary myth that’s open to interpretation into a measurable visual symbol. Making impressive television images became more closely related to the quality of ideas and the possibilities of combining different times, environments and elements in one scene.
And so, after we realized that television language is a prepared medium that records a presence in a given time and place in compliance with natural and physical rules, where time is bound to a chronological sequence and place is bound to the rules of gravity, and where a perspective is available with all its data, came a television show that defied all traditional rules, allowing the separation of a body from its logical environment and placing it in another environment and a different time and place. Viewers seemed ready to believe that a character called Fattuta actually exists, no doubt prompted by Fattuta playing the alter ego of a more real character, Sammura. Ghanem said in a TV interview that he was bothered by how viewers liked and paid attention to Fattuta far more than to Sammura himself.
Fattuta, the adult reverting to childhood, is the one who makes the decisions, whether real or unreal, while Sammura the adult acts in accordance (echoing a spontaneous childishness, or Freud’s idea of regression). So Fattuta involuntarily embodies two separate characters in one body. Watching, we too create a childish alter ego in our sub-conscious; an ego that is allowed to break the rules of social formalities, transforming reality into a stage. Fattuta becomes a medium consumed by television viewers to release their primitive impulses and bypass psychological inhibitions. As TV transported us to imaginary realms, it created a psychological vent for us.
All this leads to the conclusion that, firstly, the Sadat assassination video was the Egyptian audience’s introduction to the techniques of television language, and the realization that this language is human-made and not metaphysical. Interacting with it also gave viewers the chance to realize how a camera can express a personal existential view coming from an internal mental force, entirely independent of the officially recognized TV language that relies on monitoring and documentation, like the propaganda mechanisms used in making and presenting presidential speeches on television, for instance.
At the same time, it was also established that this television language can disintegrate and exploit the mechanics of its narrative (practically and theoretically) to construct new logics, which interact with viewers’ ulterior motives. While riddle shows and fantasy were channels to achieve this, as they were meant to entertain, what they did in reality was break the language of social formalities taken from TV, by falsifying the deconstruction and deliberately making a semantic intervention into television’s official language.
This text was written as part of a research paper on the history of video art in Egypt under the title “Videos from Hell”, as part of the project MHWLN. Translated by Amira El Masry.