Contributors: Russol Al Nasser, Farah Mazougei, and Rowan El Sheimi
From balconies in Cairo to Amman and then to Tunis, public art performance bridging the private and public space disseminated across the region, thanks to effective documentation and exchange.
Given the many hats we wear as artists or as culture workers in institutions, we rarely prioritize documentation. Or we document, but the footage, photos, and texts we produce end up tucked away in our desk drawers and are eventually lost or expired as their mediums decay.
We tend to overlook the often forgotten benefits of not only effective documentation practices but the practice of documenting with the intention of dissemination. We also tend to overlook the Internet itself as a public space and sphere for discourse, perhaps able to carry some, if not all, of the impact of the intervention itself. In 2015, Mahatat for Contemporary Art produced several classical music performances by Teatro for Independent Theatre on various balconies in four different cities across Egypt: from Mahatat’s own office in central Cairo and an abandoned palace in Mansoura to a government building in Port Said and a private residence overlooking a busy market. The reactions to Opera on Balconies were splendid – even to the point that more than a year later an audience-generated Facebook video, “Edith Piaf in the Souq,” surfaced and went viral.
As an organizer of art events in public spaces since 2011, Mahatat has continued carving out spaces for performance and public engagement around the country, even as these spaces – gained largely by the political energy Egypt was witnessing – were slowly diminishing due to crackdown by the authorities.
Mahatat began with the project Our Streets, which featured a selection of performances, video art screenings, and community-building events in metros, public squares, and street corners. It revived traditional art forms such as puppetry and sondouq al donia (shadow puppetry) and presented new art forms such as contemporary dance and contemporary circus arts. Throughout Mahatat’s six-year experience, documentation has always been a pillar to its practice.
The association hires professional filmmakers and documentary photographers, produces publications, and creates strong media ties to bring its activities to a wider audience. Mahatat recently began evaluating the impact of documentation practices on the company’s goals. Its publications that document how-to implement cultural practices have allowed other initiatives, artists, and organizations to replicate certain processes or adapt them to their local context. Mahatat’s videos (10-20 minutes), in contrast, might give an idea of an activity, but they play very little role in outreach.
Moving forward, the company would like to create videos that are more playful and fast-paced and that advance the goal of outreach whereas their publications can engage in discursive practices. Musicians, participating in the Opera on Balconies initiative, perform from the Mahatat office in Manial, Cairo, in 2015. Photograph courtesy Mahatat.
The company approaches each project with a unique documentation plan. In fact, documentation figures into the project planning, and Mahatat usually hires third-party consultants – videographers, for instance –for its implementation. It would advance the company’s mission if the team could accommodate documentarians so that they are part of the holistic process from the start, but that is a financial challenge. Mahatat’s documentation of Opera on Balconies inspired and facilitated the replication of the project in various cities across the Arab region, including the Tajalla association in Amman. Since 2015, Tajalla has been staging such interventions in various balconies around the city.
While documentation was not taken into consideration, the project attracted various photographers and filmmakers who captured the performances and reactions of people on the street. Tajalla was established in 2011. The organization focuses on raising art awareness by encouraging networking among independent culture operators across towns and cities and produces concerts and long-term, local music projects with children. Such projects invite youth to discover their own voices and learn how to listen and speak articulately.
The Balconies project was Tajalla’s first real public space intervention. In Jordan, artistic interventions in public space are very rare, so it was only natural that Balconies would have a big impact. Tajalla didn’t have a budget, but friends of the organization who are professional photographers wanted to participate because the project made a great impact on the city – they wanted to be part of that. These photographs and videos, which conveyed the impact on the street, supported Tajalla’s effort to secure governmental support for the initiative. In Tunisia, the Balconies project was also adapted to its local context in early December 2016 in the old medina of Sfax in southern Tunisia. People in Sfax refer to the project as “the candle that lit the medina.” Like Tajalla, the Tunisian Association for Theatre for Children and Adults was also inspired by Mahatat’s initiative, which was in turn inspired by similar activities in balconies around the world, to bring the project to the city.
The Association met Heba El Cheikh and Shaimaa Atef of Mahatat at Carthage Theatre Week, where they exchanged information about activities and conducted research about balcony initiatives around the world in order to learn from best practices. The medina holds significant urban heritage in Tunisia, and in Sfax, it has largely been neglected asan unsafe place for people at night. The performances brought people to the space, activating it as a new urban center for the city. In addition to presenting concerts on balconies, the organization stages theatre, traditional music, poetry, clown performances, literature reading, cinema screenings, and lectures in the rooms adjacent to the balconies. The Association didn’t even have to advertise the event: people would simply gather and attend every first Saturday of the month. Two photographers and two videographers documented the activities, which enabled plenty of media outreach, drawing a number of print journalists. In addition to such activities in the urban center, the Association has also been touring a bus across small villages and towns, using it as a stage, touring library, and cinema since 2011, with more than 60 performances addressing topics such as racism.
Usually, the attendees of these performance post videos before the organization gets around to distributing the content of its own photographers and videographers. Cairo to Amman to Sfax. Every first Saturday of the month. Documentation of a public space intervention in one city facilitates the extension of this activity to other places and through time, allowing best practices to replicate. Documentation is the fuel of public art dissemination.