Tales of the young participants’ activities had been trickling out over the months leading up to the exhibition ‘Video by the Kilo: An Exhibition of New Video Works by Seven Alexandria-Based Artists Developed During a Three-Month Workshop with Sherif El Azma’. Before the workshop began, these artists (all aged between 18 and early 20s) could claim a promising, if scattered, body of works between them, as well as an ongoing online exchange of images and videos from Egyptian pop and informal culture, accompanied by their own sharp-tongued commentary. ‘Video by the Kilo’ was designed to offer a non-proscriptive framework for this loose, seemingly self-sustained cohort of artists.
The introduction of artist Sherif El Azma as workshop leader seemed a promising, if potentially volatile, appointment. El Azma’s own highly stylized video works plumb the everyday violence that is enacted through gender, ethnic and class hierarchies. His involvement in the workshop was in part a reaction to his desire to escape Cairo’s competitive art scene. As instructor, he aimed mainly to facilitate students’ projects without promoting a particular aesthetic or otherwise determine the outcome of this process. In this, and in drawing on the participants’ pre-existing relationships and concerns, he stands apart from a spate of artists of the same generation who have recently founded quasi-formalized educational initiatives in Cairo and Alexandria. Without constituting anything so institutionalized as a ‘school’, the workshop met regularly and encouraged a critical, if omnivorous appetite for the reproducible image – from Egyptian TV classics to Matthew Barney to YouTube clips. Participants shared materials that they had trolled from various sources in what El Azma termed ‘laptop jams’, while informal discussions amongst the group that occurred prior to the workshop were integrated into the sessions, deepening existing conversations.
The exhibition at ACAF presented five videos produced during the workshop. Their eclecticism was countered only by an underlying engagement with gender positions and desire – concerns that arose from the dynamics of the workshop itself. Sarah Samy’s Meanwhile, a whale cries (2011) comprised a sequence of short scenes of mundane observations of everyday life which appear transformed by the sleeping mind’s fluid, unconscious visions. Throughout this dream world, the humour and alertness of waking life persist: a vacuum cleaner takes on the appearance of a small dinosaur carcass or an oversized turkey, a cactus standing erect on a sandy beach bursts intermittently into flames. In the absence of any predominating motif, the more developed scenes seem barely able to overcome the transitory quality of ‘filler’ material, as seen on TV: the structural equivalent of the dream or the joke.
Mohamed Nabil’s two-channel video, The Final Speech (2011), pairs footage shot inside the maquette of a pure white art gallery with shots of a listless young man at a desk. A lackadaisical voice-over recites lines from Charlie Chaplin’s speech in The Great Dictator (1940). We attribute these excerpts to the distracted man. Juxtaposed with the sterile, white gallery walls hung with monochrome white paintings, the lines are vacated of their original urgency and become the vague mental notes of an aspiring artist, to be commodified later in the context of a gallery.
Unlike other pieces in the exhibition, independent filmmaker Ahmed El Ghoneimy’s Bahari (2011) adhered loosely to a conventional narrative framework. It focuses on an encounter between a middle-class man who films children while roaming the streets of Alexandria at night, and two menacing underworld characters who accuse him of being a pedophile and hold him hostage in the city’s maze-like shipyard. Their interactions are underscored by an unspoken physical threat and the wavering threat of desire. Pretensions to social realism and a voyeuristic exploration of class difference, while present, are intentionally undermined by the artificiality of the film’s rhythm and the slight disconnect registered in the eyes of the actors, who were shot looking into space and subsequently edited so as to appear to be looking at one another.
El Azma’s influence on the exhibition is best understood as the promotion of a lighthearted self-reflexivity and a strong commitment to the formal qualities of video. By dint of such virtues, the artists in ‘Video by the Kilo’ avoided the usual pitfalls in dealing with issues of gender and class. Joining El Azma, they are among only a handful of artists regionally who are willing to take on issues of sexuality – specifically homosexuality – something El Azma tentatively ascribes to a social dynamic specific to Alexandria. If these are traits of El Azma’s practice, they were not forced by him on the participants but, rather, were already present in the participants’ work, and given a space to develop. The relative successes and shortcomings of ‘Video by the Kilo’ originate, in part, outside of the workshop, in the small network of young artists who inspired it. The workshop, it is hoped, will serve as a catalyst for reaching audiences outside of this limited circle but also for a style of arts education that doesn’t prioritize the production of distinct works over the conversations and milieu that foster them.