We were a group of eight editors and facilitators – Ali, Bauss, Mungi, Nada, Krystel, Heba, Eyad, and Shaimaa – tasked with the design of a co-writing lab with more than thirty artists and programmers experienced in art in public space. The artists and programmers came from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Mahatat organized the lab to produce the foundational content for cowritinglab.com.
As this was a Mahatat initiative, we privileged collective decision-making in the program design process, and after working through the challenges of such an approach, we found ourselves co-writing the design of the Lab. The action of co-writing is like cooking together with one knife, a large cutting board, and a single flame.
The action requires a balance between fast decision-making, patient repetition and re-articulation of ideas, and faith in the production and revision of multiple drafts – a process to which none of us were really accustomed. And in the Arab context of multilingualism and multiple dialects, the process also entails embracing synonyms; even though meanings might be slightly off key, it’s the quality – not the technical finesse – of the tune that matters, especially when it comes to culture in public space which is inherently rough around the edges. Having committed ourselves to co-authorship and having experienced its benefits, it became much easier to spread the gospel. The editors were eager to generate a discourse entrenched in detail, analysis, and critical thinking. We were in agreement that the endless workshops, seminars, conferences, symposia, forums, meetings, and summits which convene practitioners and producers from various artistic disciplines across the Arab region rarely move beyond superficial debates.
They are often fixated on differences between cultural contexts and language. And when vital, complicated conversations emerge, they almost never have the opportunity to morph into an analytical document, a history to be shared with a broader community. Seldom does debate transition to a co-authored publication. The first morning, we got to know each other in the rustic charm of the Jesuit Retreat Center in Muqattam, overlooking the expanse of Cairo. And in the afternoon, we took an excursion to downtown to attend a street performance. On the second day, the group of thirty broke down into smaller trios and quartets that began to co-write and co-create drafts – documents, illustrations, videos, audio pieces, and graphics. The co-writing process departed from a set of questions collectively generated by the group of thirty, questions that we as practitioners and producers must ask ourselves before, during, and after the moment of artistic presentation.
The essential topics, unique to community art in public space, ranged from intention, methodology, context, design, community engagement, security, and after-life of the performance. In addition to the materials resulting from co-creation, the Lab also produced interviews and discussions recorded on video and audio. Upon reviewing the material, the editorial team –Shaimaa Atef, Heba El-Cheikh, Eyad Houssami, and Krystel Khoury – identified key overlapping themes, which form the structure of cowritinglab.com: artistic identities, contexts, communities, and methodologies.
The idea for the project began with a focus on documentation, but as this website demonstrates, the process of co-writing unlocks creativity, invites multi-perspectival storytelling, and above all reflects the rigorous commitment of the Lab participants to the urgency of our work, together, in all its difficulties, across borders, through the prism of Arabic.