Unexpected Encounters

Malak Helmy, Hassan Khan, Jasmina Metwaly, Mada Masr

Camera Austria invited Beirut to join a collaborative exhibition project along with 0gms from Sofia and Kontekst Kollektiv from Belgrade. Unexpected Encounters pursues phenomena of normalisation “after rebellion” and after societal upheaval, where the collective desire for normalisation has given rise to new myths of order, history, and identity. Which pictures are associated with this desire for normalisation? And which opportunities can be devised to delay the naturalisation of these pictures? “Unexpected Encounters” opens up a realm of unexpected exploration of these questions, which may initially be characterised by misjudgements, inappropriate assumptions, and dubious cultural differences. Beirut responded with an exhibition of works by Malak Helmy, Hassan Khan, Jasmina Metwaly, and a publication by Mada Masr.

In view of the many requests which have been delineating a strong interest in what is happening in Egypt at this moment, various questions arise: What is at stake in this international 'curiosity' and what can its acknowledgment produce locally? Who sets the parameters of participation for this transfer? How can we perform the assumed role of witnesses when political events transform into cultural products of high export value? How can we remain true to the flux and imminent hope embedded in a moment while it is framed or fixed as spectacle?

Considering this pretext from our own (local) position, political questions cannot be transferred to the cultural field without thinking about institutions, without reflecting strategies of (not) instituting the cultural and political practices that emerge in response to certain moments of transition, or what is frequently defined as revolution. Most of what Beirut does is guided by a constant re-evaluation of the question of how and when we decide to institute or refuse to do so, to not be taken by the pitfalls of representation. There is a need for complexity in response to the steady desire that wants to embrace the positions and gazes of Egyptian artists, through which the distant political situation can then be reflected comfortably. Such demands tend to oblige art practice to fulfill an assumed role of translating social and political antagonisms into a materiality of representation. But what if it simply creates spaces of association around these subjects?

Jasmina Metwaly

Jasmina Metwaly is a visual artist and filmmaker based in Cairo, co-founder of 8784 h project and a founding member of Mosireen video collective. She is interested in the points of intersection and division between single-channel image, video and documentary filmmaking. Metwaly began conceiving “From Behind the Monument” (2013) while on a residency in Torino, Italy in 2012. The film is based on footage that she recorded during street clashes in Cairo in 2011, shot from a balcony using night vision. The imagery serves as a backdrop projection, situated in Castello di Rivolli where it is surrounded by masterly frescos and reliefs, when a visitor, a young girl, walks into the room and inspects the museum object. She watches the film for a while, then stops and moves closer to the screen itself, observing its different textures: the pixels of the film, the surface of the screen, its frame, the floor, the walls, every detail. Metwaly’s film speaks of reproduction that becomes illustra- tion, a failed mimicry and thus by default, a failed attempt to speak of the event itself. The bodily tissue of revolt is composed of hu- man behaviors that are in constant motion. There are no strict definitions that comprise these behaviors as they manifest themselves within individual actions as well as in those that multiply, turning resistance into a collective momentum. Such momentum occurs once in a while, in time and space that cannot be predetermined. Spectacles capture reality in ways that can compromise the inten- tion of an event itself. From Behind the Monument documents a third spectacle in an attempt to disintegrate what constitutes the representation of an event.

Malak Helmy

Malak Helmy is an artist based in Cairo and Doha. For “Story–time with Lyrebird” (2013), Malak Helmy collaborated with Simeon Roos, a voice actor/social scientist/raconteur based in Michigan. The male lyrebird is a songbird known for his remarkable mimicry skills. He absorbs and regurgitates his acoustic environment, perfectly imitating what he hears, and embodies it as his song—to become the sound of another bird’s song, an electric car key, wa- ter gurgling, a chain saw, a flute, a baby crying and even human speech. The species and its features became widely known with the documentary “Birds” in which famed narrator Sir David Attenborough stands hidden in the bird’s habitat, observing and narrating as quietly as he can to an audience watching eagerly at home. Story- time with Lyrebird is an audio narrated work in which we listen to a solitary lyrebird psychically pacing back and forth and performing methods of narration in a spaceless habitat about the size of the space of his mind. Given the missing resonant properties of his environment the bird begins to perform his own feedback and resonance. He makes notes on these performances, reflects back on them, performs them and their echoes. He is perturbed by a new term he has learnt from a book by Timothy Morton titled “Ecology without Nature”: ecomimesis or nature writing is the act of mimicking and expressing the nature of space, sounds and characters in writing but not truly being it. He tries to find ways to understand this term and to express—honestly, formally, truly— the phenomenon of his skills of ‘nature writing’, concerned perhaps that he is not fully embodying what he narrates and truly expressing his environment. Reading the book as a manual for self-betterment, he encounters a desire to heal fractured subjectivity by submitting oneself through voice and language to a fidelity of space; he then becomes a series of splintered waves bouncing back lost information; he gets seasick; he finds himself in the instructions of another artwork on birds, voice and madness; he gets on a boat and is a pirate maneuvering lost at sea; he becomes a radio host playing songs about the ‘weather’. He notices Sir David Attenborough is there observing him all the time, hidden, quietly whispering his concerns with the unhinging of the lyrebird’s skills and mind in the contraction of his space-less habitat. They both pretend they do not see each other, and attempt an act of simple hypnosis: only you, only here, in this place, and anything but that and no-where else, like this in every way? The non-nature-writing lyrebird was originally conceived for the habitat of an online radio island in 2011.

Hassan Khan

Hassan Khan is an artist, musician and writer. He lives and works in Cairo, Egypt. Somewhere between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate, it is possible that there exists a gap within which the two states overlap and become interchangeable. It is inside this space that, as in dreams, one speaks to oneself using the voice of another, and speaking and listening — subjectivity and objectivity — either fuse together or collapse entirely. Hassan Khan's stuffedpigfollies is a series of six 20 x 25 cm Inkjet prints on Canson paper. Both an independent work and a component of his installation KOMPRESSOR (2006-2007), the six prints each feature a single hand-drawn cartoon rendering of a pig, isolated over a jaundiced yellow background. Each pig appears to be in some form of distress, with sweat or tears flying from each of their heads—cartoon language for fear, anxiety, confusion, trauma. Under each sits a line of text written in strange, squashed script similar to a form of handwriting, but with the consistency of a computer font. Phrases such as 'this illogical barrier borrowed from somewhere else' and 'which witch?' serve as cryptic captioning for the already confused pigs' predicaments. Khan has described these pigs as signs of possession — generic forms borrowed from a history of unassumingly submissive, pudgy reflections of human endearment. They stand on two feet and gesticulate with their hooves like humans, communicating their anxieties in clear English. But 'possession' takes on a double meaning in this case, as the pigs are similarly, on each count, struggling with a strange force offstage that threatens to overtake them completely. (Text excerpt taken from Automation and Hysteria by Brian Kuan Wood, Nafas Art Magazine, 2008.

Mada Masr

Born out of crisis and inevitability, Mada Masr, a Cairo-based news website attempts to secure a house for a dislocated practice of journalism that did not survive in mainstream organisations and their associated political and economic conditions. At its nascent stage, Mada Masr attempts to carve a space for progressive voices at a deep moment of political polarisation and media concentra- tion, while it also interrogates the haunting question of institu- tional survival. “The Day After”, a series of conversations with journalists covering chaos and violence, a one-off newsprint of a publication that cannot (yet) exist in print form interrogates no- tions of “making sense”. In the realm of news production, layers of consciousness unfold between the breaking of an event, wit- nessing it, writing about it and analysing it. In this exceptional newsprint, we reverse the process of coverage and try to stop at the moment when distortion happens.

Read more about Camera Austria and the exhibition here.