Fusing culture and polemics


Fusing culture and polemics

I’ve always been rather sceptical of art that seeks to break boundaries, preferring art that simply does. Likewise, although I am a great lover of music of the world, I have something of an aversion to “World Music”, which too often simply combines the most cliched aspects of each culture. So, when I headed to The Flyover for one of Dash Arts’ Cafes (on this occasion as part of the Nour Festival), I needed a little convincing that the programme of an academic talk on the Arab Spring followed by a gig from magrehbi/dub fusion group U-Cef and The Arab League would work in practice.

However, after talking to Tim Supple, Dash Arts’ artistic director, my cynicism was somewhat soothed. Telling me of his group’s commitment to what he termed “deep internationalism”, he explained his ethos of long-term research building to “impossible collaboration” between artistic traditions and languages. Through this collaboration, our views of static, monolithic entities such as “The Arab World” (Dash Arts’ current focus) and the ex-USSR (the next project) can be complicated and we have the privilege of, as Tim put it, “confronting one’s own ignorance”. As one of the smaller events, Thursday night’s cafe event perhaps had a more modest aim: to combine music and discussion and bring the regular audiences of each type of event together to experience something new.

Looking through the programme, I was struck by both the calibre and variety of guests on the discussion panel. There were two academics — Dr Fatima El-Issawi from LSE and Dr Anne Alexandre of Cambridge University — and, in visual artist Vanessa Hogkinson and actor Khalid Abdallah, two from the art world. The makeup of the panel was, in itself, already a departure from the norm and it was refreshing to witness a forum in which there were a range of perspectives.

Although the talk focused on media, none of the panellists overplayed the role of technology in the recent uprisings, with stock-phrases such as “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” eliciting universal scoffs and grimaces. The first talk, from Anne Alexander, particularly stressed the dialectical relationship between people and medium and the fact that technological innovation is inevitably linked to broader social change. By providing an interesting overview of the use of technology in social movements from the Middle East, from Roneo machines in 1940’s Egypt through smuggled Iranian cassettes in the 1970’s, to today’s utilisation of mobile phones and internet technology, she placed the current movements within a wider historical narrative.

If such a project seeks to take academics out of the closed space of universities and into the wider community, and give activists the opportunity to share their experience with a new crowd, then it has my full support

The theme of medium-as-tool was further developed by Khalid Abdallah, who, for the night at least, was far more activist than actor. He made the blindingly obvious, but often ignored, point that for the most crucial days of the revolution the Mubarak government shut down access to internet and phone networks altogether. Instead, he focused on the use of more rudimentary tools: photos, video, and good old-fashioned projectors. During the Tahrir sit-in, Abdallah and some friends set up a tent in the middle of the square to collect citizen’s footage of regime brutality. The films and images soon formed an archive that was distributed throughout Egypt and beamed onto screens and buildings across the country, challenging the official narrative of a benevolent army. The theme of narrative recurred throughout his speech, which framed revolutions as largely battles over stories. Now, of course, Egypt faces new challenges and so the intrinsic relationship between power and resistance dictates that new tools must be found — the camera is a powerful weapon for exposing violence, but less so when the narrative is about the “backseats of power”.

Fatima El-Issawi, in contrast to previous speakers, drew our attention to mainstream media, which, although much-maligned, is surely an important actor in building democratic societies. Describing a common post-revolution dilemma, she described the battle between the old and the new; the institutional purging or individual harassment of professionals who, experience and valuable skills notwithstanding, are tainted by association with the old regime. She summed up the problem of journalists in post-revolutionary societies with the phrase: “we used to fear the regime, now we fear the people”. The result of the “invasion of amateurs” into the media has been a resort to “slander, libel and a lack of professional standards”. From this description, it sounded to me as though they had made the transition to a modern, liberal Western-style media remarkably quickly. Overall, she gave an insightful description of weak and uncertain media trying to find their feet in a new environment, confronting a problem common across all sectors of a vastly changed political landscape in which those most qualified to work are inevitably those most involved with the old order.

Vanessa Hodgkinson: The Way We Were (2007, gold leaf on maps)

Finishing the discussion, Vanessa Hogkinson described the inspiration behind her most recent work on the Arab uprisings. Combining Islamic geometric art and calligraphy with modern images, she showed several of her pieces which address contemporary issues: a map of a dismembered Palestine, constructed with broken images of Islamic architecture; postcard-perfect views of the beaches of Corsica (used as a base for NATO intervention in Libya), overlaid with kufic-style QR codes leading to the website of the French military. Speaking at length of the “moment of pure desire” between deciding to download a gruesome image of, for example, a blood-soaked Gaddafi, and the image’s arrival, she showed work which explored our sometimes untameable will to witness violent scenes.

My only criticism of the discussion was that it was too short — each panelist spoke for just ten minutes, leaving around the same time for questions before the room had to be cleared for the music. U-Cef and the Arab League were good, but not brilliant. I felt that the gig never really lifted off, perhaps due to the slightly disjointed nature of the evening. There was also a noticeably smaller crowd for the music than the talk, with some people staying in the bar or going home, perhaps indicating that the crowds for academic discussions and fusion music are, after all, somewhat different. Perhaps surprisingly though, I didn’t feel that this partial problem in any way discredited Dash Arts’ commitment to breaking boundaries — while some people left, many people stayed and the band were charismatic and lively enough to get people dancing by the end (helped in no small part by Marissa, a bellydancer who stole a little of the thunder). If such a project seeks to take academics out of the closed space of universities and into the wider community, and give activists the opportunity to share their experience with a new crowd, then it has my full support. (London, of course, had its share of “social unrest” while the Middle East experienced “social movements”).

Overall, the evening was very successful, despite both the talk and the music feeling a little squeezed. The ethos of Dash Arts is certainly admirable, and I for one will be going to more of their events.

Duncan Thomas is currently undertaking an MSc in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has written on a wide range of subjects, including environmental issues for WWF, current affairs for his personal blog and rural education in India for The Times.