Entering the complex, winding space that is Berlin’s Savvy Contemporary, part of Berlin’s Silent Green — a cultural venue that used to be a crematorium — we are met with a screen where a young lawyer from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression jokes at how friends and acquaintances’ perceptions of him changed since he became a lawyer, expecting him to dress and act a certain way. Poised at the entrance of the exhibition rather than inside, the interview is placed as an introductory piece rather than an inherent part of the show, perhaps a peek into the idea of the performativity of law, an idea that has been informing Jasmina Metwaly’s research practice and broader interest.
An artist, filmmaker and activist, Metwaly — whose solo exhibition “We Are Not Worried in the Least” ran until March 11 as part of the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded — spent years working with the Mosireen Collective in Cairo during the January 2011 revolution and its aftermath.
The idea of the performativity of law runs through some of her other works, while also being at the heart of a work in progress, potentially titled On Trials, which will be her next collaboration with Philip Rizk, who is also a member of Mosireen and Metwaly’s co-director of the 2015 film Out on the Street.
The first work we encounter after the lawyer’s interview is an excerpt from footage filmed in a Cairo courtroom. The video plays on loop, a record of the nothingness that happens as everyone awaits the judge, and the formal proceedings that take place as soon as he enters. It is usually the last moment journalists are allowed to film, as the judge almost always forbids cameras during the actual trial, as Metwaly elaborates during a guided tour of the show.
In another work, Metwaly reassembles and puts on display research material collected for Out on the Street. The material includes a video by Essam Ali Allam, a security guard in the Starch and Glucose Factory who had filmed six hours of footage on his mobile phone, depicting the illegal destruction of the factory during the process of its privatization. When he attempted to show the footage at court as evidence against the factory’s new owners, he was ordered out of the courtroom by the judge. In one narrow, dimly lit room, Allam’s footage plays on a small screen in its entirety, accompanied by a thick pamphlet titled The Evidence of Absence, where Metwaly transcribed and translated Allam’s voice-over commentary. The works reveal the spectacular edifices of the law and the potential void these edifices engulf.
The law and its performance aside, another theme transpiring from the works pertains to reconstructing events, devoid of context, in a quest to revisit their details outside the hegemony of contexts.
On two parallel screens, a clip of a young man with an Egyptian flag on a pole and longer footage of clashes in Downtown Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street play consecutively on what looks like an editing timeline. Each suspended on its own, repeating endlessly, they become abstract images of some kind, free of any larger meaning.
Both clips are extracted from Mosireen’s archive, which was made public under the name 858 in January, shortly before Metwaly opened her show. She says she has become “obsessed” with that archive, and that this work, and others, read like an extension of 858.ma, Mosireen’s footage — not just the archive, but the very act of making it public. It feels like a way of reconciling with the past rather than merely recalling it, and Metwaly takes it a step further by confronting, albeit not thoroughly, the most compelling question 858 poses: How can the archive be employed, productively?
A potential answer lies in stripping videos filmed in times of political violence and upheaval of their context and urgency, in an attempt to create new ways of seeing the footage, filmed years ago, and to open up new possibilities for usage. Metwaly goes through the hours of footage on the brand-new platform, looking for the uneventful, the mundane moments nobody paid attention to amid the magnitude of the political moment in which they were captured: footage of the sky, of the ground when the camera is left on unintentionally, of blurry movement and objects. Metwaly annotated such moments with tags like “sky,” “blur” and “laser,” counting how many times each appeared in the archive. She also used them as a basis for the show’s central piece: a multi-channel installation titled Six Lessons with Alaa.
Here, Alaa Abdullatif, a performer and friend of Metwaly’s, is a stand-in for the artist. She reads out texts that Metwaly created, inspired by her annotated fragments and online filming tutorials, as guidelines for filming in certain situations. Visually, clips of Abdullatif performing are interspersed with the revolution’s footage from the 858 archive. In one segment, Metwaly writes: “Know your camera well. If you can’t run with it, don’t bring it.” In another, she advises: “Keep the camera close to your body. Think of it as an extension to your limbs.” The work interrogates the acts of filming and documenting as central means to actively engaging and being physically immersed in an event.
A slightly more personal and poetic work, and perhaps the most compelling, Tool-Mobile Phone is a desktop grab video that reflects Metwaly’s creative research process through a combination of captioned clips and notes materializing on a word document. “It’s just something that I do; I make these short video grabs of different thematics,” Metwaly says. “I feel they explain the elements of my work better than I do.”
The last work in the exhibition is an audio recording of a conversation between Metwaly and Mostafa Bahgat, a friend and fellow filmmaker. In the interview, Metwaly asks him basic questions about the difference between filming on the street during clashes and filming inside courtrooms during trials, descanting the various restrictions he faces as a filmmaker in Cairo. It is a closing piece that brings us full circle to the beginning of the show, the courtroom footage, which Bahgat filmed in 2016. It threads together the main axes of the show: the law and its accompanying performances, revolutionary events without revolution, and the act of filming. The thread is at times far too thin, and the spectacularity of the revolution at times shadows artworks that aren’t directly associated with it, masking other interesting possibilities that particularly emerge from works that address the performativity of the law.
A testament to this shadowing is how most Egyptians I spoke to who had seen the show were left unimpressed, or — more accurately — indifferent. “We’re just so tired of it all,” is a phrase I heard more than once, usually after a resigned shrug. Yet, the show appears to stem from that same feeling, as experienced by Metwaly herself. The exhibition title reflects a similar kind of nonchalance in the face of stagnant political violence, driven by a boredom that grows to become “a form of survival” as expressed by the artist in the show’s curatorial essay.
The nine works that comprise the show, as well as the sequence in which they are displayed in the exhibition space — a wide corridor with niches that for decades were used to hold urns — create an impression of someone walking down a physical “memory lane,” examining images of a not-so-distant past in retrospect, and attempting to find new meaning among them.
In her conversation with the show’s curator Antonia Alampi and researcher and curator Pia Chakraverti-Wuerthwein, published in the exhibition brochure, Metwaly says the way the space is structured informed the choice of the works displayed. They built upon another, the same way “disparate pieces come together in a linear manner on a video timeline.”
The space, alongside that which it was exhibiting, presented a show on evolving perceptions and new ways of looking at events that happened years ago, at things we take for granted, proposing different ways of seeing them.