Sunday, October 31, 2010

speak, memory: the archive between memory and forgetting

Yesterday morning, Egyptian artist Malak Helmy raised a question about the assumed urgency and need for creating archives and other forms of permanent memory. Helmy’s comment resonated with the story of Funes, the Memorius by Jorge Luis Borges, which Professor Victor Mayer-Schonberger cited in his book, delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Funes is a young boy, who acquired perfect memory due to a horseback riding accident. However, he simultaneously lost his ability to generalize and abstract as he was caught up in multiple narratives of history and infinite details of daily life. The artist's comment triggered a debate among the symposium participants about the purpose and consequences of creating comprehensive and perfect memory.

Ongoing research projects are producing an overwhelming body of knowledge. This might create equally hegemonic structures parallel to existing ones that researchers are attempting to escape. Much of the research done is in response to existing contentious narratives of history. Furthermore, the agendas of funders add another layer of partiality to the produced authored research as highlighted by Jesus Carrillo of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain and Heba Farid of Cultnet in Egypt. In addition to problems of trust between the public and the gatekeepers of archives and research projects, the insistence on the enlightening role of the archive seems simplistic, argues Negar Azmi, the senior editor of Bidoun magazine. For instance, the leaked images from Abu Ghraib prison failed to stop the torture; and the ongoing discussion on the Wikileaks in the US focuses more on patriotism rather than war crimes. Might the archive of cases of violence thus have a soothing effect on its users or is it a question of modes and contexts of dissemination?

Some of the symposium participants went to the extent of foreseeing a need to dismantle the archive in the future, returning the documents and memories back into the personal space. In some cases, we do not need to fill in the blanks and the lacks could be equally valuable to be able to live and act firmly in the present. Sean Dackery, the founder of the online pirate library AAAARG.ORG, even cites cases when writers wished that old writings that were out of print would disappear.

Still, many argued in favor of the empowering roles of archives. co-initiator Sebastian Lutgert compares the accessibility of the archive to the open city model, where governments abandon defensive mechanisms in the case of imminent capture to preserve their cities. In the case of the archive, the best way of preservation is to distribute copies of the material to a larger audience, making it accessible and usable. Monika Borgmann – the co-founder of the Umam Documentation and Research Project in Beirut – added that what the archive offers is an option of remembrance for those who wish to engage with certain events and periods.

The question thus becomes not about the usefulness of the archive, but rather about finding ways to present the documents in an impartial and unbiased way. Researchers should be left the room to form their own opinions rather than being presented with authored narratives as highlighted by Steve Urgola, the archivist of the American University in Cairo (AUC) libraries. It is within this impartiality that the true value of the archive lies.

Speak, memory might have opened up more questions than it resolved. However, the resulting contention might be necessary for people to reflect more critically on their practices as highlighted by the symposium curator Laura Caderera in her closing comments.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

speak, memory: On the personal and the intimate

Over the past two days, speak, memory presented numerous research projects by artists, anthropologists, researchers and historians, often questioning existing narratives of modernity or investigating specific areas of interest. During their visits to archives, private collections and urban markets, researchers are coming across an array of “intimate” material such as family photographs and personal diaries. A recurring concern for many practitioners is how to deal with such valuable material. Should it be digitized and made public online? Might it be altered by an artist and represented as part of an exhibition or research project? What responsibility does the artist-researcher or historian have towards the people represented in the images or diaries and the public, who might gain greater insights on a certain period through accessing such information?

Cairo-based artist, Paul Geday, sees it highly problematic to work with personal belongings and images one finds. There is always an ethical question of how much one might change in the original objects or display them in a certain context. The re-presentation of images and artifacts in different contexts gives them a new life of their own. Their interpretation is hence derived from the new collection and context in which they are repositioned, argues art historian Angela Harutyunyan. Award winning photographer, Susan Meiselas, acknowledges that despite the artists’ best intentions, they have little control over the interpretation and use of the material they publish, which resonates with the reluctance of photographer Yasmine Eid Sabbagh’s to publicize the images she obtained from the residents of the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp as we discussed yesterday. Although in the specific case of Sabbagh, the owners of the images allowed her to make them public for specific social and political reasons.

The work of Vasif Kortun, curator and founding director of Platform Garanti in Istanbul, has focused over the past decade on acquiring private collections and archives, digitizing them and making them accessible online. Nevertheless, he clearly objects to making the personal and intimate public.

However, personal belongings and artifacts can provide valuable information on the context and time in which the owner or writer of the diary lived. This is an argument greatly supported by historian and private collector Mahmoud Sabet. Steve Urgola, the archivist of the American University in Cairo (AUC), agrees. A single personal collection such as that of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, which the AUC recently acquired, tells us about how cultural institutions and government ministries operated at the time through Fathi’s letters of correspondence with them.

Dr. Lucie Ryzova, a historian and co-founder of the Downtown History and Memory Center, bases her research on vernacular sources from popular culture, especially personal diaries and notebooks found on the second hand market of Al Azbakeyah and the used books section of the Cairo book fair. She argues that their presence on the market – a willful act of commercialization – allows researchers and artists to use and publicize them as their original owners have already placed them in the public domain. However, this assumes a perfect world with no leaks, where every artifact that makes its way into the market is bought from its original owner.

The views of Dr. Khaled Fahmy, Chair of the History Department of the American University in Cairo, fall somewhere in between. Through his research at the Egyptian National Archives over the past few decades, Dr. Fahmy came across Egyptian police records from the nineteenth century. One record narrated how a woman was beaten to death while interrogated by security forces. Her body was later dumped at the entrance of her family’s small house in the village. Her elderly mother insisted on an autopsy and was able to convict the responsible officers. Publishing such a personal story might guarantee Dr. Fahmy tenure. The records are over a hundred years old so due time has passed. However, Dr. Fahmy refused to publish them. He would cite them anonymously on occasions to convey an idea as in last night’s discussion or out of civic duty to console and give hope to contemporary families, who face similar injustice.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Speak, memory: On the authority of the archive

Speak, memory: on archives and other strategies of (re)activation of cultural memory

In response to a resurge of interest in documentation of cultural and artistic history of the Middle East over the past decade, the Townhouse gallery in Downtown Cairo is organizing an international symposium to instigate critical dialogue about the idea of the archive, its manifestations and problems among a group of local and international practitioners working in the field or interested in the topic. The symposium runs from 28-30 October 2010.

By the end of each day, we are offering our readers a group of personal reflections and impressions on the talks, discussions, and presentations of the day, as well as the questions they stimulated among us as participants in the symposium.

We hope these posts offer valuable insights to the readers, while reiterating that they are by no means meant to be comprehensive.

For more information about the symposium, program and participants, please visit

Speak, memory: On the authority of the archive

The secret collection of vintage eggs was only discovered when the policemen visited the deceased’s family to deliver the bad news. Each egg in the collection was carefully chosen by the tasteful thief –who had just passed away- and classified based on intricate information about its characteristics in relation to the rest of the collection. The egg thief story, which artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin recounted in their presentation yesterday evening, highlights the pathological impulse to collect and possess objects, images and narratives of all sorts.

More destabilizing to the idealized image of the devoted collector/researcher in search for specialist knowledge is John Fowles’ famous novel, The Collector, in which the main character -Frederick Clegg- moved from collecting butterflies to abducting women.

Although eccentric, the two stories help shed light on the value that people find in the acts of collecting, and the associations with authority and power when collections are formalized and made accessible to a larger group of people as archives. Most people collect things for personal pleasure and to maintain visual memories. However, the possibility of making a personal collection into a public or semi-public archive changes the way people see their collections as it offers room for new meanings, interpretations and forms of representation that inform public perception and memory.

Hassnaa, a resident of the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp in Southern Lebanon had an extensive collection of personal photographs from her youth with family members and friends. For years, these photos were kept in the privacy of her home. However, Hassnaa developed a close relationship with photographer and researcher Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, who was working on a visual archive, based on the residents of the camp’s memory; and thus, invited her to look at hundreds of photographs she had grouped in stacks and to create digital copies of a selection. It was an unusual request from a woman at the camp to publicly show images from her youth when she was an unveiled woman. However, Sabbagh’s archive posited the possibility of offering a more wholesome representation of what life was like at the camp a few decades ago. Offering this visual evidence of a different social and cultural life was important in light of narrow perspectives through which Palestinians are represented in mass media as well as the great change in cultural values that the camp underwent due to the influence of various political, religious and economic forces operating in the camp.

Abou Fady, another resident of the camp gave Sabbagh two images to show side by side in her archive. The first was of his wife in her youth, a beautiful woman with long black hair. The second was a recent picture of her with her children. Sabbagh explains that it is difficult to identify her as the same person in the two images, which Sabbagh did not share with the speak, memory participants yesterday. In an interview with Sabbagh, Abou Fady explained how his wife was one of the few survivors of an Israeli attack on the camp with napalm gas in 1992. Therefore, Abou Fady’s gesture was a political one out of the belief in the power the archive might have as a political tool for resistance.

When Susan Meiselas started her research on the past 100 years of the history of the Kurdish community in Iraq, it was also out of belief in the power of the documentary visual image in destabilizing existing historical narratives and representations. Her narrative sought to be participatory. Most of the images are copies of personal photographs of Kurdish families, which she reproduced in their backyard. Many Kurdish families welcomed her into their homes and shared with her their memories, stories and family pictures. It seemed liberating for people to have a voice in their representation to the Western world and they willingly participated in her documentary endeavor.

It is possible that the authority of visual archives be overrated. However, archives are indeed referenced at various degrees by researchers. In their presentation of a forthcoming book -developed in response to the photographic archive at Belfast Exposed in Northern Ireland- Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin attested to the used value of archives. The two artists focused on parts of the photographs that were highlighted or bordered by previous researchers, areas onto which ink was purposefully spilt and areas that were totally removed from the images. The active censorship of the archive equally shows it as a valuable resource.

However, the responsibilities placed on the researchers and archivists remain immense between meeting the expectations of groups who contributed or are represented in the archive and meeting their own artistic interests. Sometimes despite all efforts, projects might backfire as the artists do not have full control on the material once it is published. For instance, Meiselas continues to wonder if the representation of the Kurds in her book Kurdistan in the Shadow of History might have played a role in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sabbagh has currently put a halt onto her research and does not share the images she has for fear of feeding into stereotypical representations and flattening the lives of Palestinian refugees. Other initiatives emphasize the idea of a curated artistic project over representation such as the Bidoun Library exhibition by Bidoun Projects. Through their latest issue of Bidoun magazine and notebooks in the gallery space, Bidoun conveys its reading of the library while leaving room for others to accept or reject that reading. Most research projects and archives in the cultural field mix the roles of curator and archivist often wearing more than one hat to best reflect the interests of their subjects as well as their curatorial views; the creative is mixed with the representational leaving room for interpretation and debate rather than giving a definite answer.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Formal Reading of Emotion

Nermine Hammam’s photographs are characterized by their layers. Their true meaning is created not when the photo is snapped, but upon hours and hours spent painstakingly pouring over collections of images, colors, texts, assembling a final product that exists as an amalgamation of ideas and emotions.

This technical aspect of her work matches the emotional intensity of her subject matter. The two sides to her art create a tandem pair of layers. From Ashoura to Palimpsest, Apotheosis to Metamorphosis, her subjects are characterized by their shared portfolio of feelings –depictions of pain and anguish.

Her layering, which augments portions of her subjects, her choice of a warm color palette (red and orange dominating the added colors), and her choice of text, which spew words across the frames all increase the dramatization of the photography. It is as if they set the still image in motion, pulling it through the set of emotions actually expressed by the subjects themselves.

The photographs in Metanoia, her most recent exhibition, are created using the same method as Hammam’s previous works; each has been re-worked and colored. But instead of altering these images to complement the suffering, she has added patterns to walls, blankets, and clothes. She has, in contrary to her previous works, tried to soften the narrative of the images.


It is useful to explore the connection between technical choices and subject matter, as they are undoubtedly interconnected, consciously and subconsciously. Hammam’s trajectory of working leading to Metanoia is representative of this mixture of subconscious and conscious choices.

Through an exploration of two specific photographs, we will see just how much the psyche of an image can play in its ultimate display, from film to Adobe to print.

Metanoia: Rows of beds line the walls of a sparsely lit room. The image is overall dark and shadowy; it portrays a dim picture of life in the asylum. Sepia tones edge from the corners of the photograph and the blankets on the bed have an added pattern, therefore the reworking is present here. But the image retains a stark quality, a sterilization that undoubtedly parallels the life and the feelings that hang in rooms such as this one.

Ashoura: A man lifts his hands in offering, blood staining his white shirt and his hair drenched in sweat. But this is all we can discern as original from the image. His body is placed on a thickly layered background of yellow pattern, opaque coloring, distressed film, and text that scrawls along the bottom of the image. The warm tones vibrate the image, giving it life and mixing up the emotions, whether they are real or provoked.

The tumultuous nature of Ashoura, the intensity of the ritual, the visibility of human gore, is present in Hammam’s reworking of her original photograph. Similarly, the sheer pain, the stripped, bare humanity of live in the asylum, is visible in Metanoia. Her work is continuous; from the emotional experience that surrounds the initial capture of the image to the act of reprocessing, which then reveals the compressed emotion from within the photograph. This continuity makes her images all the more real, all the more present. Her manipulation changes the photographs, but instead of hiding the meaning, her formal choices mirror her emotional documentary experience. Such interconnectivity of art mediums to human emotion is not a new idea, but in Hammam’s work the specificity of choices and technical placement being a whole new meaning to the concept.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

we don't want to have this conversation

Huda Lufti's current exhibition making a man out of him at the Townhouse Gallery is inclusive, didactic and formally interesting, but it maintains a static point of view: merely representing the conflict between male and female gender roles. It does not take into account the amount of variation and different levels of analysis available in the field of gender studies. We have chosen to have a conversation on some of these aspects beginning with objects from the exhibition itself and branching outward.

M: Lutfi's interest in toys stems from their strong role in how, as humans, we condition gender identity since childhood. By examining Barbies versus Batman action figures, one can gain insight on the formation of our perception of what is masculine and feminine. In mustache and lipstick and stripping off the garments, Lutfi accurately demonstrates that we have simply been conditioned for so long to perceive certain qualities as a function of gender. By placing Batman and Catwoman action figures side by side with the rest of the pieces in the show, we see the fake roles that are given to males and females. Compared to her pieces that try to showcase our similarities, the actions figures demonstrate a societal reliance on these roles.

E: To further explore the idea of cultural conditioning, in mustache and lipstick: the heads are all the same, androgynous, white-washed, neither distinguishable as male nor female, wearing sunglasses with male cutouts in the lenses. One has red painted lips and another has been given a mustache: two small, yet completely stereotypical, characteristics of female and male. If we remove these two qualifying characteristics, Lufti seems to be saying underneath our construction of gender, underneath what has been socialized by society and by cultural practices, we are all the same. Our similarities are often overlooked, and in this sense Lutfi's observation is useful. But if we are indeed all similar, where does it leave us? Where do we go from here?

The discussion of socialized gender roles is well-articulated in the following: Baby X, A Child's Story without Gender.

M: So much of our culture is divided based on gender. It is true that gender is one of the basic ways we identify ourselves as humans: I am a boy or a girl since the day I am born and express myself as one because I have been taught to do so... But can we argue that everything beyond the reproductive functions is constructed rather than inherent and can be simply given up through a meditative experience? Although I believe that self examination and meditation can be successful, how is one expected to do so using the myriad of influences we are constantly confronted with?

E: The different conceptions that we face are evident in Lutfi's exhibition, but there does not seem to be an argument behind each of these representations. I think that the baseline discussion regarding gender and sexuality is that it is completely constructed. You look at the language we use (the idea of masculine and feminine nouns for example) and see that everything has been categorized. Of course there is the neuter case... In German for example "child" is neuter, das Kind. It's is as if the language itself admits that a child will become more than an "X" once it has been in society long enough... It seems as though so much of gender has to do with its commercialization.

M: Playing further on this notion of commmercialization of identity, we see Lutfi continuing her practice of re-presenting collected objects from around the city in new contexts in her work. As the audience we recognize them and we also recognize the new meanings assigned to them. For example, in stripping off the garments, the expensive Gaultier perfume bottles are presented as symbols of pure human existence. It positions meaning as not instrinsic to objects and beings. In this installation we see the bottles, once a symbol of capitalism, commodification, and luxury, as a substitute for our essential humanity liberated from socio-cultural conditioning.

E: The black light is a glaring way to shine new meaning onto our cultural perceptions of one another. These perfume bottles seem to lose some of the definition in their body, as they radiate under the strange form of light. It's almost as if they are becoming less male.

M: Yes, but we are still limited to comparing these perceived changes to our culturally-ingrained perception of the male. We are recognizing the different ideas introduced via the installation piece in relation to what we already know. So is the so-called liberation process actually a liberation?

E: The intention to re-position these found objects is a good one; it employs the freeform conversation space of the gallery. But the exhibition does not leave room for questions, and the "transformations" are narrow. It is hard to see past the commercialization and heavily ingrained cultural associations these objects project. The viewer does, in worst case, not learn anything new at all from the exhibit.

M: I do recognize the symbolism put through the pieces, but does it really entice us to reflect on the archaic gender issue any further?

E: Gender studies, like most deconstructive discourse, begs a new way of looking at the world. This exhibit does not offer us a new way of looking, leaving the audience searching, needing to look past ourselves and our current state of commercialization, if we truly do want to see anything new.

M: But leaving it entirely up to the audience means that some might put in the effort, while most will simply bypass it as a simplistic take on the issue of gender representation.

making a man out of him runs through 17 March 2010.
all images courtesy of the artist and Townhouse Gallery.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Mirror and the Self

The scene of Zoe seated across from the hypnotist can be seen as a conception of Lacan’s mirror stage. The opposite pantomime, their hand movements that imitate walking, the space between them where there images are transformed. The water in the fountain between them is barely enough for a reflection, yet it creates the chasm over which the two characters reflect one another.

What we eventually see is a candle floating in the water. Careful observation allows the knees and feet of a body, presumably Zoe’s, totally submerged, as if she is now John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. In death she is connected with her other half, Gradiva, the ghost-like version of herself who walks among stone ruins. While Zoe organically traces the sunlight in the mansion, Gradiva’s tracing of shadows are more considered, and more structured.

While Zoe and Gradiva are mirrors of each other, albeit in death, the twins mirror each other in life. And these mirrors turn outward on us, and how we see ourselves.

We must consider Sequence One in Four Movements , inspired by the story of Narcissus and Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In each frame of the four-channel film a man stands in profile in front of gazebo like background, his purple shimmery leotard complete with wings that drift with the movement of his arms. Sometimes it appears as if the screens are moving in directions exactly opposition to one another, but the careful viewer can see that something is always just slight off.

It is this slight discrepancy in movement that invokes the idea of mirrors. For each screen at first mimics the other, and then not. Here the idea transformation of bodies is explored; we use mirrors to explore our own transformation; and similarly transformation can take place in the mirroring of gestures.

For both Sequence and Splendid, the act of mimicking itself can take on the role of the mirror, and whether or not the mirror is present or not becomes secondary.

If we truly discuss Lacan’s Mirror Stage here we must consider his take on the transformative properties of looking in the mirror…. the process of looking results in fragmentation, manifesting in dreams, disintegration in the individual, and even the “growing of wings.”

Doa and her film therefore show us that whether we are growing into butterflies or just growing into ourselves, the transformation is continual; we are slowly walking, slowly transforming, into what we cannot know, except that it is undoubtedly splendid.

See Lacan, Jacques. The Mirror Stage. Delivered: 17 July 1949.


Appropriation/ Interpretation

An artist talk I attended last week critiqued the practice of mimicking, re-interpretation and re-presentation, especially in contemporary art discourses. The artist discussed novelty and creation in absolute terms, conceptually and literally as he narrated his experience of producing a new material in collaboration with a metallurgist.

These notions of creativity and creation versus appropriation struck me as I walked through Aly’s show, The Girl Splendid in Walking. Does the fact that the artwork is based on a literary text, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen, make it of any less value or authenticity? What additional value does it offer? Gradiva has been previously positioned as an icon of sexual desire and human delusion by Freud in Delusion and Dream in W. Jensen's Gradiva and then by artists such as Salvador Dali and Andre Masson.

Representing the novel using choreographed performance and video, Aly focuses on delusional and obsessive sides of human psychology and their manifestation through physical movement. She translated highlights of the plot into symbolic action, reactivating the novel for the audience. The re-presentation of classics can actually layer the work and it is interesting to explore which ideas and readings of the text are introduced and developed in The Girl Splendid in Walking.

Challenged by Jensen’s description of Gradiva’s walk in the novel, which is physically impossible to perform in reality, Aly introduced her imagined version of the captivating walk. The walk is actually the underlying theme connecting different scenes of the video. All the characters in her work are striving to recreate this impossible movement with their feet and even hands, aided by hypnosis and meditation.
The real sculptor and muse to the Roman frieze, the original which rests at the Vatican Museum, remain unknown to this day. However, Jensen’s story and plot has become fact because it has been re-created over and over so many times. Aly for instance offers a solution to the anonymous authorship using the twins; and confirms the muse for Gradiva as a fictitious character that can only be envisioned in a dream.

So what is the actual source of inspiration to Aly in The Girl Splendid in Walking; is it Gradiva, Freud’s interpretation of it, the actual Roman relief or a mixture of all of them? How does each layer affect our own experience with the work? Do we add our own layer as well?