My talk at the Symposium “The Unforeseen, On Participatory Art”, organized by the Leuphana Universitat, Berlin, 16th of November.
This talk has no flashy pictures full of lively expressions and smiley faces,
no impressive figures and numbers,
no touchy quotes from a dazzled audience,
no life-changing inspirational experiences.
This text is a reflection on eleven years of practice with a list of questions that have no answers still.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you are waiting for all the above, then I am not the right speaker at this panel.
This talk has only words, abstract forms, an audible testimony with a north African accent from a burned-out, and exhausted Egyptian art manager, community and outdoor art producer. Allow me to share my side of the story.
The artists were great! under very exhausting and tiring conditions we toured four cities in the Delta region (north of Egypt), and Cairo where we performed twice.
One of the cities, was Domyat el Gedida (New Damietta), a new industrial city affiliated to the old city of Damietta. There was a public garden with an opened-air amphitheater where we planned to build our structure and perform in the evening.
As a last resort to my team, who couldn’t manage to get the approval of this small ranked responsible at the city hall, I have to give the final push and try to convince him to open the gates of the public garden to perform our show that both children and adults can enjoy for free.
On our way to the city, in the minibus that carried over twelve persons: the artists, the technicians, and the operations team, I had to perform one of my finest act. In 15min, the duration of the call, I played all the roles that I learned during my eleven years of practice. I started with the “Well educated fine lady” tone asking what is the problem, then I used the firm tone that shows that I am so much confident and will not get a “no” for an answer, then I have to get nervous and make the statement that we have all the security authorizations and have nothing to fear: “If they came, they will have to arrest me then for presenting a free show for children”. I said.
Then slowly but surely I came back to the young polite lady tone again ending the conversation with “Thank you for your understanding, sir, sure we will pass by to get some tea together, and I insist that you bring your kids to the show, they will love it”
What a performance! it was that good, that I received a round of applause from all the team after I hanged up.
We speak here in this Symposium about alternative ways and new methods that the artists can use in their practices. Well …. this is what the one has to do, to be able to do the work. Be always in a negotiation, pushing boundaries and work always of the uncertainty of happening.
This time the administrator let us do our work, two days later, the national security agent who works over a small village in Delta decided that no, he will not let something he never experienced before nor heard about, happen.
This long phone call made at the lobby of the hotel of the Mansoura city before we hit the road to reach the small village, did not have a happy ending like the first one. Through the 25min of conversation, I have used in vain all my tricks and playing cards. He was pretty determinate not to let us perform, and the tones started to get higher and threatening. I was faced with the reality that I used all my arguments, it didn’t work out and now I have to let go. I couldn’t argue anymore, nor fight, nor use my smartness nor any tricks I used to use. I was also exhausted.
With a polite almost apologetic tone, I excused and I hanged-up. And for the first time, I start to cry from frustration. I announced the news to my team and we got in the bus riding back to Cairo
The fragility of the moment
Not only we work in a challenging economic and socio-political environment, but also in a certain fragility and constant uncertainty. In a fragment of a second we can exist, in the other, we can not, nothing is guaranteed. We work on the unseen cracks of the space and the time.
That day, going back to Cairo, all frustrated and exhausted, we decided that we will perform tonight anyway. But where? Who can host us and who will attend?
In the course of one hour, the time to reach the road intersection, one leads to Cairo and the other leads to Tunis village in Fayoum, we were calling everyone to know where to land to perform, where we can set the portable theater, perform to a real audience not just to empty chairs and check our boxes.
We ended up riding another two hours to Tunis village, and on a flat land, we set-up our structure and we literally knocked on every door inviting children and families to attend the show.
Under the palms trees and the fading light of the moon, almost 300 people, the majority were children, enjoyed the show.
The next day, walking in the village streets we found out that the land where we performed yesterday, is a construction land, and now builders were throwing the concrete of the first floor.
We performed in a space that does not exist anymore, in the course of the night it was transformed and filled with concrete. This magical moment created yesterday was now gone. This incidence symbolizes the whole essence of our work with people and in spaces. In a moment we were there and in the other, we were gone, either by choice or forced to leave.
We always talk about the impact of art on society, on the communities, on the individuals? Well, I believe that it has an impact, but it is like this moment stolen from time, this disruption in the space or in what it meant to be: Ephemeral, intangible yet happened.
Resilience is a Bitch
“Once you return we need to sit quickly to see what you can do with this amount?”, she said.
And by she, I mean the representative of a foreigner culture center operating in Egypt and at the same time, a member of a Cluster of donors who shall now decide on the destiny and the amount of our grant.
The fundraising process of this learning and incubation three years program, started in 2016, one year after another, we only raise 25% every year of the whole budget so we fragment the project and try to do what we can with what is available.
Last year, the process started early, it was well received and we were promised almost 75% of the budget. Now what we can get from the institution is only 25% of a year budget. We are expected to handle this challenge like we handle all that is related to our practice: to maneuver, to negotiate, to navigate through different systems.
Among these systems: taxations, security, financial precarity, and donors’ requirements. We, as culture leaders, are responsible for our team wellbeing, we have to keep them satisfied and motivated and of course to make a change and present quality work.
At this moment I just realized that resilience, in this case, is a curse, not a virtue, we are feeding all these systems with our resilience, our energy and our passion for the work that we do. This was the moment that I realized that I need to decline the grant and to stop and to question all this.
A moment of truth
We work not only on the margins and the informality but also on the fragility and the ephemera of some friction of some moments in the History.
After eleven years in this domain I can tell that:
- All systems where we work are old, archaic and preserve only their existence not the essence and quality of the work.
- No experience nor model is replicable, because time doesn’t repeat itself nor we can be the same all the time.
- Sustainability is a myth that we were forced to believe in and to spend our time and effort to prove.
What we need is
- To question the methods and approaches that we use, imposed by foreigner systems and basically politicians.
- Rewrite new formulas and ways for collaboration based on mutual interests and authenticity
We need to believe in the unforeseen such as the power of our intentions, our solidarity, our motives in creating better work, and a better world.