Define your generation here. Generation What
Paper, transport and bureaucracy in Egypt: An interview with artist Ash Moniz
In the Anticipation of a Future Need to Know - Courtesy: Ash Moniz and Townhouse

Ash Moniz’ exhibition “In the Anticipation of a Future Need to Know” consists of a four-part video and sound installation at the Townhouse Factory space. A solo show curated by the artist, it presents a culmination of a year-long research on the dynamics of bureaucracy in Egypt, specifically the logistics behind official document production.

The Heist, the show’s most elaborate piece, is a multi-channel video installation, shot simultaneously on six cameras under the direction of Ahmed Abdel Nabi. Laden with dialogue, it shows six characters discussing the problematics of tracing the route of paper, from the literal perspective of an unseen map being produced in real time. Elswehere, at the center of the exhibition, headphones hang above a large empty stage opposite a video projection of an actor performing the role of a document interviewed by an off-screen voice. In an adjoining trapezoid room, four speakers emit dialogue on a loop. On a separate wall, a blown-up image of the International Civil Aviation Organization is mounted behind two videos of passport photographers discussing the biometrics of facial recognition.

The Townhouse Factory space, once a paper factory itself, has previously been used for discussions around paper production: In 2010, Townhouse hosted an exhibition by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin that explored the Art & Liberty group of the late 1930s in Cairo, and their production of paper pamphlets. Their show included a structuralist film on the mechanics of an old printing press.

Moniz’s use of video, however, is concerned more with mapping institutional routes which imbue material objects with social functions. While titles such as The Heist reference cinematic tropes, the pieces, saturated with speech and text, transmit information through sections of dialogue, rather than affect or emotion through a narrative structure. A theatricality in performance, an overt reliance on speech, and the use of multi-channel and spatial installation, suggest traditions of didacticism in video art rather than a tradition of classical cinema. An overlay of text, images and sound produced by the different parts of the show carve out a digital space within which physical materiality is seemingly re-imagined through time-based media.

Canada-born Ash Moniz arrived to Egypt from China at the end of 2015 to attend MASS Alexandria, and later moved to Cairo in preparation for his first solo exhibition. A few days after the opening, I met him at the Lotus Bar in downtown Cairo, where we spoke about the process behind his research, the transport of goods, access to archives and more.

Sama Waly: How did this show come about?

Ash Moniz: The original idea came about a year ago. The research I was previously doing was based on transportation logistics, but at MASS Alexandria I was looking into dock workers’ strikes, things about ports and the infrastructure for transportation. I began tracing the flow of products, and eventually I had an idea that I wanted to trace where the paper used in the Mugamma [Cairo’s central administrative complex] came from. Over time it became less about the Mugamma and more about specific documents, and more specifically about the official police printing house, which prints passports and ID cards and different things.

SW: How did you come across it?

AM: First, I looked at the history of the paper industry, all of the paper companies that exist today, [and at] the news in terms of collaborations and partnerships between different companies. I was collecting stories that had to do with the industry. It was a good basis for figuring things out, so I also did road trips to follow the route of paper. We drove to Dekheila and then followed the route to al-Salam paper mill in Alexandria and then to the Rakta paper factory in 6 October, and continued to drive around between different places. I was trying to study the closest logistical attributes between these different places: Are these areas more industrial, or [for] warehousing? And what are the routes between them? Is there a straight road to get from one place to another? Or does one have to turn and go into other types of areas? I was trying to understand the actual journey, and how the movement of paper has a life of its own. There was a lot of trial and error in the research phase.

SW: How did you document these stages?

AM: Sketches, pictures, videos, mainly notes, because it wasn’t necessarily important to visualize anything but to find the logistical attributes that were telling of a larger political context. One thing from these field trips that came into the project was this massive fence around a section of Dekheila port. It’s a curved riveted black mesh, used to block view only in one specific area and from one particular angle. Most ports in general are closed off, securitized and militarized, but I thought that was a fascinating architectural characteristic that says a lot about the role of visibility and of construction. So there’s one line in the script of The Heist where that comes up.

SW: What is the larger political narrative you reference?

AM: The industry of transportation logistics is one of the most financially rewarding in the entire world. It’s also the most important and has a massive history. The first roads were built for mobilizing military weaponry, fuel, and goods, so this is at the core of logistics: being able to make sure that resources can flow towards where a military base is. And the constant flow of goods is still just as much an issue of national security as the closing off of borders for people. So I think this weird paradox of simultaneous openness and closure is very important. I guess it’s the political context around which this project is situated, around the parameters of what makes up a nation state.

SW: The construction of the railway system in Egypt by the British in the mid-19th century was primarily to facilitate the flux from eastern colonies to the British Empire.

AM: Exactly. In The Heist there’s a text that appears on the screen at one point, a paragraph taken from a British military report in 1937, about how the Shell company built the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road specifically for mobilizing military vehicles. It’s a report back to the British Empire, about the characteristics of the road, how it’s perfectly suitable for mobilizing a large fleet of this or that amount, how it might need some reinforcements and what solutions they found.

SW: You were also looking into different archives…

AM: I found that document online. I actually found a lot of things online.

SW: So while tracing the movement of paper, you ended up finding a document produced by the World Bank, which [Mada Masr writer] Habiba Effat plays in one of the [untitled] video installations.

AM: Originally the project was mainly going to focus on tracing the route of paper, but then I realized that I was searching too much for narrative, so I ended up reflecting on the role of narrative, especially within the supply chain. The supply chain automatically has a narrative structure to it, because there’s a direction, a beginning and an end, supply and demand, the port and the inland area. I was critical of the role of narrative that already exists in the logistics, so I decided to do the opposite and totally narrativize the project and create a fictional script wherein people were plotting a map.

SW: How did you narrativize it?

AM: I didn’t want to show a map in the exhibition, and I was hoping I would be able to experiment with new forms of cartographic practices. So in this sense the script is the map, because the whole map only exists in what the characters are saying — if you were to watch the whole video till the end you could actually map out the whole thing. So I thought of a heist, because of how the word “plot” evolved historically. Originally, “plot” was used to describe the demarcation of a plot of land, and eventually the practices used for plotting land were used for plotting theater stages, and hence the term plot in narrative took form. And weirdly, over time the word came to mean a plan with an evil connotation. The fictionalized trope of the heist may help the viewer read the other pieces that are less obviously fictional.

SM: The last time we spoke you mentioned that given the importance of language, you felt a need to experiment with different media (i.e video or sound) as opposed to publishing the research in a book, for instance.

AM: I was looking into the theory of documentality, which is the idea of a transition or transformation of a physical object into a social object through the inscription of a speech act. So documents have been deemed a social function through them being an artifact on which a speech act is inscribed. I was looking at the relationship between speech and weighted physical materiality. I wanted to explore this idea, firstly to look into how a physical object loses its physical significance through the act of speech. Another thing was avoiding any imagery of transportation logistics, I didn’t want a single image of a port or a factory, because that visual representation wouldn’t speak to what I was going for. So to balance out the weight of these moving products, I thought they should exist within speech, which is something considered weightless but also very weighted.

SW: A document that preserves a law in its material form is very fragile in contrast to a digital archive, for instance.

AM: Any material thing is a commodity. By the time you receive an immigration document, it’s already finished a journey of flowing through all national borders — thousands of hands have been literally transporting it. The entire system of transporting goods is based on upholding materiality — the paradox is that digitization practices are more useful for securitization, monitoring, storage, but at the same time the physicality of things is crucial for the entire logistical industry, which is based on having physical goods moving from one place to another. It’s almost undesirable for things to become less material because the technologies for moving material things are becoming more advanced. This is attached to labor — everything moves by human hands, except for a couple of ports in the world that are almost entirely automated.

The history of a product is inscribed in its barcodes, inventories and records, but not on the thing itself. I’m also interested to see how the systems for tracking goods and tracking people are similar and antithetical at the same time.

SW: Through this correlation between tracing objects and people, you ended up making the piece where an actor embodies a document, gives it voice, and as the document, answers questions posed by an interviewee standing outside of the frame. We never see the document. So what is this document and how do you reach it?

AM: The document is a loan, from 1980, when the World Bank gave Egypt US$50 million to develop its paper industry. The recipients were mainly two companies, Rakta and National — state-run paper companies that still function today. In the video the document is anthropomorphized. Usually you’re stripped of your humanity and become merely a document, but here it’s the opposite. So there’s one part where the document talks about marks, stamps and logos, as if they were marks from childhood trauma from their parents.

SW: What was the route you took to the World Bank archive ?

AM: Their archive is online. When looking at the Egyptian side of things it was difficult to find archival material, but when there was an international cooperation, then I could find out things that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Another archive was that of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which conducts studies and reports for governments. I found a series of reports in collaboration with the ministry of transport, a survey on the entire transportation system, in full detail. This is information I wouldn’t have access to locally.

SW: Perhaps some historical archives are kept in material form rather than digitized in order to control access and dissemination of information.

AM: It also speaks to a process of bureaucratization.

SW: As in the Mugamma.

AM: Yes, that’s another instance where transportation is simultaneously production: a document is produced by being transported through these different offices, starting from the outsourced manufacturing. A larger product is produced by all of these small parts in the process.