Revolution as Aesthetics [PART II] | AHMAD HOSNI


Click here to read PART I


III.         The two vanguards


Revolution is the forging of new horizons of social positioning and new possibilities for the count. It provided an incident for socialities that proliferated with the new configurations of the we. And in a field that is extensively networkist as the art field and a revolution that has over-flown its local context, the plane of communality extends beyond the local at its very moment of onset; the claim to revolution is instantly a globalist one and the ‘we’ is instantly a global ‘we’ for all those who shared the eidos of Tahrir, from the Indignados to OWS to 99% to the plenitude of activists and artists. It is a ‘we’ that was spearheaded by a new notion: the activist-artist. This was a new paradigm of social positioning and subjectivization in the Egyptian art scene only surfaced after the revolution—and to put it in our cherished Rancièrian vocabulary: an aesthetics of politics. I find it very significant development because it brings the question of the political and the pathos of globalized ecologies of art together in an uneasy relation.

Take the case of Ahmed Basiony, for example. Basiony was a multimedia artist who was killed during the early days of the revolution. At thirty-three years of age his practice has been proceeding for some time and was known within the small circle of artists although not considered to be one of the prominent artists on the scene. After the revolution his portrait circulated widely along with portraits of other victims of regime brutality to become a paragon of the revolution. In 2011 his work was chosen to represent the Egyptian pavilion in the Venice Biennale. More curiously was the way Basiony’s work was curated in the pavilion: the work was a combination of a documentation of the artist’s performance Thirty Days Running In Place and video images shot by Basiony in Tahrir and culled from his hard disk. The material presented was an menagerie of artwork and documentary material. More curiously, the pavilion was presented as the pavilion of the ‘martyred Egyptian artist.’[1]

The Venice Biennale was not a singular incident; Basiony’s work was to be exhibited internationally on multiple occasions, always under the label ‘martyred artist.’ What is salient in all these incidences is that Basiony’s martyrdom—or rather his accidental activism—was that which sanctioned his work as artwork worthy of international presentation. At first, it would be tempting to look down on that as opportunistic marketing tactic by the curators and a facile museolization of the artist’s predicament. But that would be rather reductive. The question that need to posed here should not the normative one as what should be done and what should not, i.e. as to what is the proper way of curating the work especially within such a historical conjecture. Instead, we need to ask what makes such ‘aestheticization’ viable? We need to unpack this aestheticization—if I might use the word—into regimes of legibility, legitimation, needs and perceptions of urgencies.

The standard discourse of analysis in case like Basiouny’s tends to draw on critique of art market logic under globalization on the one hand and a postcolonial ideological discourse to a lesser extent. I am not questioning the validity of such mode of analysis but I believe one should be circumspect towards hypotheses that rely on supernumerary entities like empire, to which both of these strands of analysis harkens to, and the apriorism they entail. These models conceive of a dichotomy between ‘us’ against an all-pervasive force, be it neoliberalism or neocolonialism, of the ‘them.’ Manichaeism, briefly put. In order to counterpoise this macro-political discourse I prefer to stress the micro-politics of conflict that partake of all social fields, art included, as the driving force behind this hegemony of political reading and discourse. I prefer to prove the inter-factional conflict between equitable, or quasi-equitable entities without losing sight of the globalist ecology against which the conflict takes place. Instead of arguing from the perspective of ‘us’, the artists and activists, versus the system, we need to speak of ‘we’ versus other ‘we’; different socialities with contending for their own spaces. Accordingly, I situate Basiouny’s case within two frames of legibility. Firstly, his position within the narrative and art historical frame of the contemporary Egyptian art. Secondly, his position with the post-revolutionary frame of the activist-artist.

To start with the first. The historiography of Egyptian contemporary art has always been pivoted on narrative of government-sponsored art versus independent art spaces versus where the birth of latter is regarded as the start point for contemporary art in country. This took place in the late nineties and the most poignant case was the establishment of The Townhouse Gallery by its founder William Wells in 1998, which grew to be the most prominent and longest enduring independent art space in the country till this day. The gallery responded to was vacuum left by government funded institutions that did not have neither the expertise nor perhaps the will to respond to an increasing globalized art market combined with burgeoning curiosity in the Middle East in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. It was able to connect to a global art network of institutions, curators, and critics by employing the expertise and codes of professionalism in that particular field of practice, namely curators with who had studied overseas or have international professional experience. It was able to establish links with international funders in way that government-sponsored institutions were not capable of achieving. Concomitantly, this period also witnessed the advent of international fund-making bodies and institutions: institutions like Pro Helvetia, the Ford Foundation, the art fund program at Dutch Embassy, all would continue to be main sources of funding art in the country. The period also witnessed the rise of the international artist residency to be become the sine qua non of professional art practice. The gallery crucial in facilitating artists’ mobility, proving a line of flight into international art scene, a crucial boon considering the difficulty ordinary Egyptians face obtaining European visas.

It was very common in those days to have initiatives curated around a geographic identity; titles in the likes of ‘Art From The Middle East’ for instances—a trend that has not much subsided after all). Artists were presented as the vanguard who were deconstructing cultural stereotypes, and who were shunned out by the governmental, institutions, something that also gave leverage the artists’ work in international milieus.

The local art scene was largely the progeny of institutionalism international networkism and metropolitan capital. In networkist terms, what the Townhouse Gallery did was to establish a node in the global art network that was able to connect local young artists with the international art community. It established a nidus around which local art developed and spawned offspring of independent art initiatives and collectives. It also spawned a small and closely-knit community of artists and practitioners as well as collectors that gyrated around the Townhouse Gallery. This ecology was politically vexed at a number of scores. Firstly, as the Townhouse became the first and foremost benchmark of Egyptian contemporary art it was also gradually becoming a monopoly on the scene. It became the essential, and oftentimes the sole, stop for the visiting curator mapping the local art scene. And for the emerging artists, it was through the gallery that they could find their entry into the international art scene.

Secondly, the gallery was extensively managed by foreigners, be it managers or curators and was operating in English, art’s lingua franca. Not all artists were competent in English, and as a result while the gallery facilitated the integration of artists into the global network those who were initially in more favorable conditions to tap into the new ecology. They were more capable of explaining their work in their own words. This resulted in a dichotomy between those who can speak for themselves and those who had to rely on other curators to frame their work in art conceptual terms and promote it. But language competence dichotomy reflects a discrepancy in socio-economic terms, which entails that those artists who were better positioned in socio-economic terms also better positioned to benefit from the contemporary art ecology that the Townhouse was its progenitor and epicenter during the first decade after its founding.

The community that grew around the Townhouse Gallery was a community of sense, woven in terms of art practice as well as the being-togetherness under the symbolic community-to-come denominated under labels such as ‘contemporary Egyptian artist.’ These are the very labels that are articulated as the result of institutional biopolitics and metropolitan capital. For those artists who did not have easy access to international milieus it was that triad that would forge the position of the artist within the network. As one artist once confided: “… There were people who would never talk to me. Not even say hello. It all changed once I started travelling [on residencies]. That was the moment when I knew I was in [as part of the community].”

There lingered a degree of shadowy resentment towards the monopoly of the gallery and the institutional formation of contemporary. By late 2007 a generation of younger artists came together to form collectives that were less dependent on The Townhouse Gallery. Most notable was Medrar for Contemporary Art which was founded by recent graduates of the low-brow Faculty of Art Education. The collective identified its mission as the move beyond “international curatorship, institutional hegemony”, as Mohamed Allam, one of the founders of the initiative states. Medrar curated events such as ‘Cairo Documenta’, an event that was made to coincide with Twelfth Cairo Biennale in 2010 and was [2] counterpoised against the two ‘real’ events as their slapstick antithesis: the meticulous curation, the articulate statements, international names, etc. all were scraped for modest finances, unsophisticated concepts and an overall conscious demotic aesthetics that verges on the grotesque and the cheesy.

Medrar’s initiatives could be seen as critique of institutional ecology that dominated and indeed defined contemporary art in the country. The creation of an alternative institutional context made it possible for the participation in the art networkist practice beyond the monopoly of the singular institution. After the revolution such an institutional monopoly was further challenged by the unforeseen paradigm of practice, namely the activist-artist model. Such a paradigm of framing and role-making was relatively new in Egypt. It was only after the revolution that conflation of the art and activism had become a viable practice worthy of international recognition as art practice of which Basiony, the martyred artist, might have been the first and the most prominent epitome. But not the only one. Another parallel development was the outburst of street graffiti after the revolution. Traditionally, Egyptian cities showed little tolerance for street art, perhaps due to the restrictions imposed on the use of public spaces or maybe due to self-inhibition. Graffiti was no exception of course; seen as foreign, imported, and with few sporadic incidents mainly in affluent neighborhoods it was a practice limited to the fringes of art spaces. All that radically changed after the revolution when graffiti became a popular mode of protest. Graffiti was a rupture in the space of political visibility; it brought a space of appearance into the people’s everyday experience and provided the opportunity for the lay non-politicized average person to encounter with mementos of the anonymous protester who is in disagreement with the system. It brought in a possibility not only to witness political manifestations but also to be part of it. Art-protests initiatives like Aggressive Graffiti Week  by the Cairo-based graphic artist known as Ganzeer helped to bring graffiti to the broader public, both as practitioners and audience by relegating it to the sphere of the demotic.

Like Basiony’s martyrdom, graffiti presented an opportunity for international recognition.[3] In both cases the activist-artist model acted as an international code of intelligibility; it provided articulation of modes of possibility, modes of doing and seeing. ‘Doing’, as the artists developed the language that allowed them not only to understand how read globality but also to operate within it. ‘Seeing’ as it put order—a grid of sorts—on the cultural mapping that took place after the revolution. As the epitome of the activist-artist, graffiti was regularly eyed by journalists and cultural commentators as a blatant (if not oftentimes sometimes facile) gauge on the development of art in post-revolutionary Egypt and the region at large.[4] It was a grid on a global level. The activist-artist was a paradigm of global translatability: easily floating form from one point to the next on the network of protest. The activist-artist paradigm rived through the fabric institutional politics; it presented an opportunity for artists whose work would not have been accepted by the institutional definitions of the contemporary and with less reliance on institutional framing.

Additionally, the activist-artist paradigm was beyond its local context from the outset. It is an international by default, perhaps as matter of sheer contingency, because, notwithstanding, it would not have attained that level of internationalism had it not been a time of global economic crisis. Arab Spring has been indeed born in an opportune moment. If there was a will to internationalism on the side of the local, a claim for a voice on the global arena, there was a will to inclusivity on the side of Western anti-capitalist activism manifested in the will to count as world-wide protests as a manifestation of the same causality, the framing of local experience as international common experience. The Arab Spring as prolepsis of the predicament of Western parliamentary democracies under late capitalism. ‘We are all activists and artists and we are all the same, and we are struggling against a common foe’, namely neoliberalism, so was the tacit assumption. And to this end, nothing could be more poignant for this claim to inclusivity than the “We are the 99%” mantra. This is not a census. It is neither population nor a people. It’s a mode of counting that is always capable of absorbing more. What is your chance of being part of the 99%? Probably 100%. Because one is automatically included as long as there is a will. This is universalism par excellence. Everybody could be part of 99%, even benefactors and collectors paying tens of thousands of dollars for an artwork, or the artist in a lavish party on a Dubai beach.  Or Basiony. All that matters is the proclamation of affiliation to the community of 99%.

The whole idea of 99% is anchored in the notion of counting the uncounted. It is a call for a re-count. It is a count with the image of the converged bodies occupying public spaces at its epicenter. It is the symbolic organization of the community and a regime of aesthetics that consolidates the we. It gathers everybody where everybody is supposed to be counted. It is what ought to be rather than what is.[5] It is the proactive forging of hegemony by forcing the suspension of fault lines of division for the sake of one major fault-line (99% / 1%). But unlike the hegemony of the revolution which was quilted against a concrete antagonistic entity (the Mubarak regime), a division that had fixed positions since those on either side cannot simply cross the fault-lines and become converted, the 99% is proselytizing signifier, always seeking new converts, always re-counting the uncounted. It is the symbolic function of voiding difference. The 1% is a symbolic supplement that keeps the community of all (99%) in order and for that matter hold the whole horizon of universality in order.

What could be inferred here is that the political dimension in works and curatorial gestures such as these is not at the site of political activism or political ideology. Instead, the political is operating at the realm of social positioning. Revolution becomes the global site for the local of power relations. The revolution provided a conduit into internationalism for some artists who otherwise would not have had the chance of becoming recognized internationally by providing a bypass of institutional hegemony.  Locally, the idea of protest assumed currency in public discourse and became, for the first time colloquial, a new ecology of art discourse provided an alternative to what could be seen as overblown intellectualism of contemporary art which itself was much dependent on preconditions of socio-economic class and linguistic acumen. It also shows how such a contestation could be short lived. It shows how readily it could be co-opted by the biopolitics of institutional networkism. It is a two-way course, a short-lived rupture soon to be aestheticized and eventually commodified.

Here we see the dialectic between the political dimensions residing at the site of activism: the will for hegemony and the claim for internationalism. While from one side it is the universal will to include and hegemonize, from the other it is the internationalist claim for a voice on an essentially globalized landscape.

[1] For a more comprehensive account of Ahmed Basiony’s case see Omar Khouleif’s “Ahmed Basiony: An Artist or a Martyr”, Afterimage, March 2012.

[3] Ganzeer in particular has gained a lot of attention. He was invited to speak in front of the European Council. See Christian Viveros-Faune, “The New Realism”, Art In America, June 2012. See also Dorothea Schoene’s interview with Lara Baladi, Afterimage, March 2012.

[4] Numerous articles have been written on the topic, which seems to have become a natural entrée into the topic of art and politics in the Middle East. See Nama Khalil “Art and Arab Awakening”, in Foreign Policy in Focus. See also numerous talks by Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Bloomsbury, London.

[5] I am tend to loosely draw on Rancière’s notion of the ‘ethical community.’  See Dissensus: On Aesthetics And Politics, tr. Steven Concornan, Continuum (London 2010), pp.188-189.