Define your generation here. Generation What
858: Archiving as a tool of resistance
On revolution, non-production and subversive documentation
 
 
 

Seven years ago, a number of volunteers — some of whom would later make up the Mosireen collective — began collecting footage from the public at a tent in the center of the Tahrir sit-in during the 2011 revolution. On January 16, 2018, Mosireen released 858 hours of this footage, time-stamped and indexed.

Housed today on Pandora, an open-source tool designed to provide a home for media archives of heavily text-annotated video material, this fresh archive sits there, gazing at us, waiting for us to gaze back and think of what’s next beyond recalling the moments it froze for us on screen.

Intrigued, editors Leila Arman, Lina Attalah, Ahmed Mongey, Yasmine Zohdi and interns Nada Nabil and Farida Hussein from Mada sat down with Mosireen members and 858 creators, Carbon, Krypton and Plutonium*, all of whom have a practice in filmmaking and writing. We spoke about the process of curating the 858 archive, the ways in which it could breed more archives (as well as other mediums of documentation) and, ultimately, the relationship between archives, death and redemption.

Lina Attalah: How did the idea of putting together the archive come about? The impression we have is that it followed a certain moment of silence or of non-production. But was there a history of thinking of the archive in parallel with production?

Carbon: Mosireen was created after we witnessed the army attacking the square for the first time, on February 24, 2011, and thought that some kind of archiving was going to be necessary. It became clear that the revolution was going to be a longer process. So, from the very beginning, Mosireen existed to archive and collect material. The group actually began to produce films with the Maspero massacre. Throughout the years of the revolution, we tried to collect stuff in a way that makes sense, and then it became a question of how to present it. We stopped making videos in 2013, with the coup. A year passed with nobody doing any work. Then, in 2014, it became clear that we needed to get on with how we were going to do this.

The People Demand the Fall of the Regime, an early, edited Mosireen creation, published shortly before the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution

Krypton: Basically, there was a lot of talk about getting it done, but it took us so long to get everyone together to do the actual work. Then, there was thinking that it wasn’t viable to do it in Egypt for security and other reasons. So we decided to hold retreats outside of the country—the first was in New York in August 2016. At the beginning, before any technical discussions, we had a series of conversations among ourselves: Who is this archive for? What is an archive? There were a lot of ideological, philosophical and theoretical discussions about it. We also spoke with people from Pad.ma and others about archiving. There were a lot of discussions on security also: What do we show? What do we not show? If we take things out that are potentially dangerous, are we sanitizing the revolution? Because there was revolutionary violence that was a form of resistance, but we knew showing that could become dangerous.

Lina: Was there some sort of a breakthrough, formatively or intellectually, in your early meetings when you were still going through ideological discussions surrounding the archive?

Krypton: I don’t think there was a big breakthrough. Just that putting the archive together is a subversive act, so there was a feeling, at least personally, that we were doing something. There was so much paralysis after the coup and all the violence, and it felt like now, by doing this — in a tiny, maybe disruptive way — we were at least making some kind of intervention. It was also just great to work together again. We had to give up our space in Downtown, and the collective wasn’t a collective anymore the way it was before. The physical act of being in the same space and working together once more was for me very therapeutic in a way. There was a lot of arguing.

Everyone: About what?

Carbon: There were a lot of questions about authorship. There was a discussion on what to call the archive, for instance. A lot of people didn’t want to call it Mosireen but something wider so it feels like it belongs to as many people as possible.  There was a question of whether to have the names of the people in the collective attached to it, and there were questions of security. What we all realized was that, just because I held a camera and shot a scene, doesn’t mean that I’m the actual author of it. So, we came to the understanding that the most democratic way, kind of, was to take all of our names off it. That was a significant breakthrough for me.

Krypton: We never put any of our names on anything before. Mosireen was always a collective. Each of us has a pseudonym in the archive — there’s Mosireen sorsar (cockroach),  Mosireen 3ersa (weasel), and so on. And we told all the other shooters that they could do what they like, put their full name if they want, or their first name, or a pseudonym.

Leila Arman: Why were these conversations not made public or open for participation?

Krypton: We have a text that kind of answers questions about our standards and criteria. I feel there’s a kind of political sensitivity to making that completely open, though. But we’re still open with anyone who asks.

Plutonium: I think there are enough different currents in the group for me, as someone who has footage in the archive, to feel that there wasn’t really a need to open the discussions to more input. If anybody who knew us outside of the collective had questions, we discussed them among us. But I think, had it gone any other way, it would have been chaotic and probably lead to less clarity.

Screenshot of the 858 interface on Pad.ma

Lina: How did you decide to go ahead with an interface that wasn’t bilingual? And is an Arabic interface on Pandora, the platform [hosting the archive], something that’s going to happen?

Krypton: The basic problem is that all the tagging was initially done in English, so it would have been too difficult to switch. This is a big concern and one that we talked about before we launched. It’s not hard to translate the topics and places into Arabic, the issue is that there’s no toggle button on Pandora that you can click and switch to another language. So it has to be dual, or we have to take out English and replace it with Arabic, which could be an option; 99.9 percent of the archive is in Arabic. We’re trying to find a way, we’re still talking about it.

Lina: Archives tend to be overwhelming. We have 858 hours of footage, but within them there are particular moments that are moving in different ways for different people. How do you bring out these singularities in your dissemination process moving forward, especially around critical dates like January 25, January 28, February 11, and so on?

Carbon: For January 25, we wanted to post a 20-second clip from something we archived and caption it: “Here’s 20 seconds from this video or this tag, get on there and look around.” There’s a really interesting video that has a different angle on the battle of Qasr al-Nil and it’s shot kind of nicely, a bit VHS-y and the camera’s kind of grainy but not too grainy, and the police are running away and it’s kind of beautiful — but it’s also a classic. It’s a scene that we know really well, but that maybe other people don’t know that well. What we need is to find new ways of looking at things, and for new eyes to look at this footage, get in there and pull out the things that we haven’t seen yet, because we’ve spent three years editing stuff, then three years indexing it, so we need a new perspective.

Krypton: We found a video of protesters who had taken over Central Security Forces’ trucks and were just deflating the tires, which was interesting. They were not trying to take the trucks and use them, they were just disabling them.

Carbon: It’s like a metaphor for the whole thing.

Krypton: Exactly. We don’t want to take power, we just want to break it. But is that interesting for other people? Do we just post a video of people deflating a tire? We do have a challenge, and it is how to get people engaged, because if our page just lies dormant, it’s going to fade away. And I don’t think we know exactly how to do that yet.

Footage of protesters celebrating Mubarak’s resignation in Cairo on 11 February, 2011

Lina: You say you’ve received very positive responses. How would you define the constituencies that have accessed this archive so far, if you can put your finger on it?

Carbon: Statistically, Cairo is number one by far, with 80 percent of the views. The rest of the top five is made up of Berlin, Kuwait, Alexandria and Riyadh.

Krypton: There is also interest from some human rights organizations who want to do reports on the types of weapons used [by the military and the police], and from scholars and different universities. But what’s exciting is that by far the biggest response came from people who took part in the revolution, thanking us for putting the archive out.

Carbon: It’s easy to forget that this all happened seven years ago, and there are a lot of people who were, like, 13 back then. This is one of the most exciting constituencies. I spent the last four years between this project and my book, both of which have to do with the memory of the first three years. One of the questions is, when do you stop working on the past and start working on the future? But also, as a person, everything that makes who you are is about your past, or your memory of it, and if you take that away, you are kind of made of nothing. And so it’s incalculable what the archive can do, and it’s incalculable what the harm might be from not having that kind of basis in your own past.

Lina: Moving forward, how do you see operating mostly online, particularly in regards to the level of control you’ll have over this archive? How do you foresee your roles, and how do you imagine the space of the internet that you inhabit, between being a vast sea of content and a highly curated collection?

Carbon: This is such a hard question, because it partly has to do with capacity as well. There’s going to have to be some level of light curation, because you don’t just want to be a YouTube channel of stuff shot in Egypt between 2011 and now. In the end, it’s called “an archive of resistance,” so there has to be a political element to it. I don’t think it has to match our own narrative of what happened, but at the same time, I don’t think that we would want to be facilitating the counter-revolution’s narrative.

Krypton: If you open it up completely and people start putting up footage from the “June 30 revolution” and things like that, that would be a problem. There’s a level of coherence that’s a must in the body of it. It’s a dangerous arena to enter into, because then you’re sitting there deciding what’s revolutionary or not, but I think there’s a common sense element to it also.

Carbon: It must be kind of similar to the decisions you make in Mada, in terms of what kind of pieces you commission and run.

Leila: So in the future, is there a committee that will select or curate the videos people contribute?  

Carbon: Ultimately, in the future, we must have broad guidelines for what we’re looking for. We don’t want people uploading cat videos shot on January 28 after all. Probably, the way it will work is, we’ll run a session maybe twice a year where 10 or 20 people who want to contribute footage will come and we’ll spend two days together in the same space where they will show us their stuff and we’ll talk about the archive and what we want for it and what they think they can add to it. Hopefully being in the same physical space will help us arrive at an understanding of what it is we’re doing. But I don’t think we’ll get to a point where we’ll just open up uploads. I think the practice is going to have to be grounded in a kind of physical, shared space in which we have conversations with people. This makes the process harder, though — slower and more time-consuming.

Footage from a May 2011 conference in Beni Suef to found an independent union for railroad workers

Lina: What about the idea of the archive being a site of production, not only in the sense of the archive breeding more archives, but also, in terms of using it in your own practices as filmmakers?

Plutonium: We’ve actually been using the archive in the project I have been working on for a while. It’s a film that takes place in real time at the end of 2011, so the archive has been integral in piecing together the story we’ve been trying to tell. I have a direct relationship with the archive in that sense. I think without it, without what it opens up, we wouldn’t have been able to capture this very small moment we’re trying to convey. I guess throughout the past few years, inside our minds, we’ve been intensively editing what happened, and so we tend to forget the power of certain moments.

Carbon: I think, in a way, I’ve actually stopped being a filmmaker ever since I started working on the archive. Probably the last thing I did in terms of being engaged with visual stuff was working on this. I spent a lot of time in the summer of 2014 organizing footage from the media tent from January 25 and 28,  2011, and I ended up stopping working with film altogether and started writing a book instead. This has become the dominant medium for me right now. So, the overwhelming nature of the archive and all of the different issues that come from working with visual stuff have pushed me away from film somehow, towards writing, which I found a bit more open and controllable.

Krypton: There are many things that can be done with the archive that we haven’t thought of. One of them — and I am highly aware of this, since I report to media outlets in the US — is that there’s a narrative that has been sustained in the coverage of this period that Egyptians don’t understand, or know how to play out as “politics” — epitomized on TIME magazine’s cover, which read, “Egypt: World’s best protesters, world’s worst democrats.”  The narrative is that there wasn’t any political participation in 2011 and 2012, just street protesting and mass mobilization. Yes, there’s a lot of protesting and violence in the archive, but there are also many different types of people engaged in radical politics, fighting for political and economic agency.  You see people from Ramlet Bulaq and so many places around the country having these discussions, and for me this has rarely been represented in Western media. I hope that maybe a film or some kind of representation of this could come out of the archive, because this upheld narrative in Western media speaks of such a broad misunderstanding of what politics is.

Footage from the Maspero massacre in October 2011

Nada Nabil: I am mostly interested in the testimonials you have in the archive. One of them was about the 1977 bread riots. I was wondering if you were likely to push for producing more similar content, since now there are many limitations to what you can film on the street. Events as they happen aren’t as accessible to archive right now, but events being recalled in retrospect can be.

Carbon: It would be amazing, of course, to construct a counter-archive to all of the archives the state doesn’t want us to have access to, and speak to people from the 1960s or the 1970s or the 1980s while they’re still here. These are all questions of capacity and momentum, but if somebody has a project like that, it would definitely be something we could work with them on including.

Leila: In an interview about the film Out on the Street, Jasmina Metwally, who was also part of the collective, said she often had questions about the process of facilitating documentation during the revolution. In the same vein, there is often discussion about how placing something in an archive somehow signals its death, as though something has served its purpose and now we are displaying it in a museum. How do we keep this from happening?

Carbon: We have to get more footage. This way we have a clear moment of reanimation and the archive stops being a museum, but is something that is alive and growing. Or, you take things and remix them and do new things with them.

Krypton: I think it is also important to realize that we are in a different moment. That kind of resistance and that kind of filming is not possible anymore. But it doesn’t mean we’re putting it in a museum; on the contrary — it is very important for it to be kept alive and for people to remember that it happened this way.

Footage of the chaos that erupted at Port Said Stadium after the February 2012 game between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry, shortly before the Port Said massacre took place

Carbon: This is part of the challenge. One of the things I am struggling with in terms of image and video is the end of this particular chapter of the revolution and moving into a new phase of our lives. My conception of what happened is that the revolution of 2011 was a historical event that made a rupture of some kind, and we don’t know where we are going. It is not a thing that began and ended and now we are done, and we went back to how things were before.

Everything is moving forward. History keeps going forward. The question is now, how to think of our reality in terms of the future. And, for me, one of the key things is how we think outside of the nation. The revolution is glorious in all kinds of ways, but it is limited by its nationalism. There were definitely a lot of internationalist discourses and obviously the Arab Spring had this regional dimension. But if we are to ever overcome the limits of capitalism or colonialism, it has to happen through a regional and international way of thinking that addresses and combats our problems, and this is one of the areas where working with images has been quite difficult, because the image is so grounded in a particular place and time. But, perhaps this is a question that the archive can push us to think about going forward: How do we make contributions to the archive that reflect the complexity of international power structures that keeps things as they are?

Plutonium: I actually don’t feel that the act of putting these videos online is some admission of closure. This isn’t my relationship with it. But I can understand how it can feel like that in this moment. For me, having the archive online actually makes these images and the memory of what happened active, as opposed to passive. I don’t know how it will be used, or what will happen with it, but I think there is a lot to learn from it. There is room for more complexity. Unlike a museum, for instance, this is much easier to access.

Carbon: Everything feeds into nostalgic cycles. This is beyond all of our control. It’s a question of how the wider public is going to engage with the archive.

Lina: Is putting the archive out there now an act of redemption?

Carbon: All you can do with a video file from 2011 is put it out and hope that someone else edits it and remixes it, or watches it and gets a new idea from it. As a custodian of material that I believe should be public, it was pretty straightforward. I find the word redemption so strange, I don’t know how to use it. We were all a bit surprised by how strong the reaction to the archive was, which speaks to how much everybody shares a need for this memory and has a stake in it, and how much this stuff is not ours, as we always knew and were trying to act on.

Krypton: I think the old strategy of putting out an edited Mosireen video and testimonials doesn’t work anymore. The state doesn’t care and people to an extent don’t care. So I think this will be different. We do not know how effective it will be; it’s a different form of presenting material that is much slower, more long-term. It takes time to go through it and time is what the state has. So it is a resource to fight on their same level.

Carbon: It’s the only form that can accurately represent the revolution, I think, because it is not authored and it is not linear and it is not one narrative. It is totally poly-vocal and messy and with hundreds of different cameras at different times all putting something together something that is not an A to B story. Somehow, it is the most parallel form to the one the revolution itself took.

Footage from the Cabinet Clashes in December 2011

Leila: But how do we get away from this condition where we are just watching ourselves? In Tahrir, we took pictures and videos of ourselves revolting, and we continue to watch these images. We sat in gatherings to watch ourselves over and over again.  It is not just a question for you, but a more general one: How do we exit this state, especially that most of the revolution was photographed and videographed and the image was central to it. How does watching ourselves create a distance from the act itself?

Carbon: It’s a fundamental question. There’s a risk that anything you do that has to do with memory might increase a fixation on the past. But at the same time, we had this thing that we had a responsibility to put up. It’s a question of how we present it and what other people do with it. We are all not interested in becoming part of the nostalgia industry and making it an asset rather than a burden.

Yasmine Zohdi: I was wondering if, in your discussions, you ever addressed the idea of how the archive can be an oppressive thing in itself, how at a certain point, the archive becomes the event, and there is nothing beyond that. When does that happen and how do you find your way around it? Because there are only so many places a camera can be after all.

Carbon: I guess you have to consider what the alternative of the non-archive is. If the archive is not there, do you have a richer, more open and more varied version of the past than you do if it is there? If the answer is yes, then we have a problem. But I think that there is a variety of stuff that stops it from taking on a dominant narrative. I don’t think it will have that much reach in such a way where it becomes a hegemonic source.

Yasmine: But you know how there are certain events in the past that are symbolized in one single image…

Carbon: Yes, but I guess the format wouldn’t let that happen because you have so many different angles of each event. Even iconic images like the Battle of Qasr al-Nil, there are probably some 15 angles of it. So this is the best answer one can offer of not becoming, or not wanting to offer a dominant image. Of course, there are things that are dominant, like the emphasis on Cairo, and the emphasis on physical street protesting. But these are the things that get filmed. You are not going to be able to escape that so much. Visuals are a double-edged sword in that way. On one hand, there is nothing as immediate and powerful and visceral as image with sound. But, on the other hand, it is totally its own frozen moment. It’s totally exclusionary.

Yasmine: I guess this is where art comes in.

Footage from the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in November 2011

Ahmed Mongey: I find myself thinking sometimes, do we really need an archive?

Everyone has a cell phone, and in a way, everyone can reconstruct their own alternative archive. How is your platform different from YouTube? Can we say the archive is dead, because, somehow, we have these different micro-archives?

Carbon: It’s a heavy and full curatorial job. A lot of this stuff is on YouTube, but one of the differences here is the rawness of the material. Each video file is probably an entire day of stuff that was shot in the kind of space that would normally get edited out. There are videos that are one hour long, and one that is three hours long. I think there is something in the kind of open and raw un-editedness that is quite important and that you don’t get on YouTube. For me, looking at it as an observer, this is the most key experiential difference. Of course, on a practical level, there is a lot of stuff on there that wouldn’t be online otherwise. There is a lot of stuff that was actively physically collected that would have sat on someone’s mobile phone for the rest of their lives. It pulls these videos together into something that has its own totality and its own flow, so that you can take your own path through it as a viewer, which you don’t get on YouTube so much because you are surrounded by the sea of everything else. There is something in the separatedness and the containment of it that makes it a longer and larger experience. I think this is what gives it its own character.

Plutonium: When going through the archive and trying to make decisions, ultimately you always choose what’s clearest, even if you want to make something a bit longer, a bit more lyrical. But I always feel sad at times that you can’t include those moments where, for instance, someone drops their camera in front of something for 20 seconds, and other minutia of the archive. There is something in experiencing and understanding these moments through watching them that gives a much richer picture of what happened, even if it is not definitive.

Carbon: There is no linear narrative. There is no beginning or ending. There is no hero. There is a total kind of mess of images. It is not a story, but the closest mirror of the actual experience of the revolution and the factors that made it a revolution: a thousand different forces pushing in one moment, all in the same direction, but each independently.

*Upon their request, Mada Masr used pseudonyms for all interviewees.

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