Studio Incident #1

Ahmed El Attar, Construction/Deconstruction, Five hour performative action held at Hassan Khan’s studio in the Townhouse Gallery during “Studio Incident #1”, 2005

Studio Incident #1
Townhouse Gallery
September 11-15, 2005

Waning mid-September heat and an uninterrupted urban drone provided the backdrop for “Studio Incident #1,” a five-day series of performances, installations and video work involving ten participating artists and musicians, a loosely defined audience of friends, art regulars and the curious, and, at two separate moments, a bottle of vodka and vast quantities of Stella. The event was organized by artist Hassan Khan and took place in his studio, located on the second floor of the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo. A short collection of critical texts by Khan and artist and arts manager Bassem El-Baroni was published in Arabic and English with partial support from Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective. An informal discussion between participating artists and audience members took place on the last day of the series. In the end, “Studio Incident #1” carefully avoided many of the more conventional approaches employed in framing art and culture events and its significance is perhaps best glimpsed on its own terms, through a consideration of the work itself.

The first night featured performances by electronic music band Bikya (Maurice Luca, Mahmoud Waly and Mahmoud Refat), collaborators Khan and Mahmoud Refat, and Adham Hafez with Deborah Stokes. People spilled out of the studio space and into the lobby to listen to Bikya’s rock electronic music and Khan and Refat’s electronic “live sound.” Hafez’s vocal improvisation piece was performed over a prerecorded electronic composition and began the evening with a certain intimacy and poise that was in synch with the rest of the event. The three performances offered distinct approaches to the creative use of sound in the context of electronic and more traditional musical references.

An 11-minute video piece by Wael Shawky entitled The Cave was presented on the second day of the series. The artist addresses the camera throughout the piece, seamlessly reciting “Surah al Kahf ” (Verse of the Cave) as he walks through the aisles of a supermarket in Amsterdam. The simultaneous representation of the supermarket, that iconic background of a post-industrial, consumer lifestyle, and the oration of a centuries-old Qur’anic verse narrating relationships of belief to power, wealth and knowledge seemed, superficially, to imply a contradiction of ideological, historical and cultural contexts. At the same time, the piece unfolded within a framework of continuity and coherency echoed in the uninterrupted recitation, the single take format and artist’s unwavering eye contact with the viewer (the camera), which complicated facile readings of the piece as a work addressing various conventional dualities and not least, the various iterations of “East vs. West.” The work was powerful in its ability to disassemble contradiction as a strategy by which all too familiar dichotomies are normalized and enforced.

Zeinab Khalifa’s untitled installation featured a miniature cardboard model of an ambiguous mosque/shrine covered with tinfoil and situated under a sparse bower entwined with fake flowers and strings of plastic beads. The mosque/shrine was encircled by what appeared to be scattered offerings, including more fake flowers (in handmade containers), small bills and two-dimensional cutout tin figures. A video loop of a European catwalk performance was projected through the bower and Islamic home decoration kitsch, as well as more tin figurines hung on the walls. The readymade materials, the handmade objects and their collective arrangement within the installation were at once familiar and unsettling. The power of the religious, cultural and national ideologies that generally provide a context for these materials, seemed to quietly drain away as the video loop repeated increasingly unconvincing images of glamour in a space littered with popular symbols of shared ideals. This was a shrine whose symbolic visual language of faith somehow failed to deliver the viewer’s necessary suspension of disbelief and as a result, evoked a simultaneous sense of unease and joy.

On the fourth day, theater director Ahmed El Attar was to be found meticulously assembling and disassembling crude wooden furniture for his performance piece Construction/Deconstruction. The sounds of his work mingled with the background noise of men doing renovation work in the gallery below and repair work in the surrounding auto mechanics’ shops. People wandered in and out, many seemingly unsure of the role expected of them as an audience. At the end of the performance, Attar proclaimed that the event had confirmed everything he knew about theater, which he later elaborated in terms of the importance of concentration and timing.

While the outlines of an implied community came in and out of focus during the five day period, the curator, the audiences, the artists, and those participating in the last day discussion seemed instinctively to avoid any gesture of collectivity. What ‘Studio Incident’ offered unambiguously were propositions suggested in the featured performances and exhibitions: a simultaneous engagement of public and private cultural spheres, a complication of conventional understandings of the roles of artist and curator, and an insistence on the coherence of a program embracing multiple genres. These are not radical suggestions within the context of contemporary artistic production, nor was the incident a catalyst for the radicalization of cultural production and exhibition practice in Cairo. Rather, the event seemed to create a space for its own self-validation through an insistence on the centrality of the work presented and a refusal of common conventions of contextualization.

The practice of locating the event was one of the conventions eschewed by Khan in organizing “Studio Incident.” For example, the terms “Cairo,” “Egypt” and “Middle East” never appear in the publication (although El-Baroni’s piece on Khalifa does refer once to “Egyptian popular culture” and once to “the Egyptian modernist movement”); the gallery appears in an abbreviated reference in the publication’s introduction as “the townhouse building”; emails advertising the event stated unambiguously, this is not a Townhouse event.

The choice of critical theory as the framework of the publication was another gesture illustrating the refusal of a conventionalized context for the event. Its approach represented a distinct shift from the descriptive language that often marks writing about Cairo’s cultural events, as well as an unwillingness to concede the naturalness of the relationship between this descriptive norm and local cultural production.

‘Studio Incident’ was also ambiguously public/private and formal/informal and linked to an institutional setting. The avoidance of the use of norms of contextualization to frame the event implied an assumption of shared understandings about the way these are used in the world of cultural production and what it means not to use them. This set the terms for the event’s validation outside those familiar (and varied) discourses defining local cultural production, as well as those discourses shaping concepts of “local” and “Egyptian,” or “Middle Eastern art.” Instead, the incidence of the performances and exhibition of work, the open-ended comings and going of the audience and the artists’ presence and accessibility offered the elusive and loosely determined, if conscientiously figured and self-aware terms of engagement.