Monumental Narratives Waiting to Cave

by M. A.

A projected video sequence of Aida ElKashef’s and Ruud Gielens’s archival footage opens the performance “Lessons in Revolting.”  To my knowledge, this is the first artistic application of the extensive material that Aida has collected throughout the three sit-ins (even at the darkest hours, it was impossible to catch sight of the activist filmmaker without a video cam glued to her hand.)  Initially the prolonged sequence, edited by Gielens, failed to capture my attention, while painfully extending what turned out to be a video calendar of the first 18 days, even with date captions.  The audience sat patiently watching an interpretative performance by the group, on a background of imagery already engraved in our recent visual memory.  It seemed that the informative approach was the only possibility for the video component of this performance.  Through 75 minutes, the videos sought to present narration, to tell a story, which didn’t need the ‘surplus’ of  the emotions invoked by acting.  This in a way is a purist gesture, leading one to conclude that narration was the essence of this work, not its instrument.  The video, thus, played its part.

The very first minutes of the performance also establishes the iconic style of Karima Mansour‘s choreography for the performance.  The movement was expressive and interpretative.  Upon watching the bodies of the activists, as they roll on the floor, jump in the air, and self-inflect pain with maximum use of the stage as in a theatrical movement workshop, the audience are left with no alternatives but to collectively wonder that this dance definitely means this or that (the Aly Sobhi torture dance, the forcefully-putting-the-revolution-to-sleep dance, and of course the exhaustive protesting finale.)  Here, again, narration reappears, as the choreography becomes an instrument to serve a seemingly more noble purpose, rather than being a self-sustained body of work.  It is that peculiar urge to justify art, articulated by Susan Sontag in her essay “Against Interpretation,” which transforms art into a mimesis of reality, in order to then interpret it, and thus creates this unfortunate segregation between content and form we are accustomed to when encountering art.  I shall revisit this point later.

Five extended monologues, carrying the testimonies, impressions, emotions, and reflections of their true narrators who also delivered them, and intersected by performative movement, constitute the spine of the performance.  The monologues were meant to be “a reaction” as co-director Layla Sulayman tells a press interviewer, instead they were overburdened with the half-baked reflections and emotions of an open-ended revolutionary experience, all trying to pass through the eye of a creative needle, which requires a much greater deal of processing the source experience before attempting to re-release it in a work of art.  Unresolvedness, in its own right, is for me far more interesting a paradigm than indulging in fixed notions of monumentalisation.   The possibilities it offers on the performance level are limitless.  Yet we are left to feel that this work was hardly concerned with that positioning.

This invites a curious question on timing; what is that pressing need which urges an artist to construct a work comprised of her personal experience in its pristine form, or to formalise it in a mechanical, formative fashion in order to “formalise” the narrative, in other words to forge the content in a cast of form? The separation thus prevails, as form here can only exist to serve a narrative, interpretative content.

I would argue that the motive in this case is the individual desire of the activists to monumentalise the revolution, its thoughts, its sentiments, its moments, its victories and its losses.  An act of monumentalisation that neither the masses, nor the interim state, nor the media has claimed. No architects or sculptors were commissioned to carry it out, as the Soviet habit went.  Monuments are in their own right narrative and interpretative.  From this angle, it is safe to perceive the work’s title in a new light.  The lessons are not those acquired by the activist performers throughout months of a revolutionary experience as Sulayman suggests at the same interview, but rather the sum of what the performers are lecturing and confronting us with, and the guilt we are subjected to throughout the performance.  This work is, equally, educational.

The instrumentalisation of art for educational and enlightenment purposes is by far the best applicable example for the project of content-form separation in the arts.  Art here is form, whereas education is content, and content must always come first, followed by the serving form.  The separation project could be well-intentioned, fueled by the artists and critics’ genuine desire to justify art’s value, going down the rabbit hole of interpretation which “means plucking a set of elements” from the wholesome work, and whose project is to “translate” a work of art rather than receiving it, Susan Sontag tells us.  At any rate, this project of separation, along with the interpretation approach, calls for a true critical view.

Music may well be the sole component in the performance that succeeds in overcoming the content-form schizophrenia, possibly due to it, music as a medium, being the last stronghold for creativity that requires no reconciliation between the two sides.  Maurice Luca skilfully manages to merge Mustafa Said’s immensely appropriated live performing (Said is an academic scholar, a professor, a published composer, and a skilful Oud player) with the soundscape of the documentary footage, and his own pre-composed works.  The resulting constructive complexity of the finale scene for example, in which the sound grows from ambiance to a space filling, dominant Shaabi music, is a sublime example of a piece of work one does not wonder before it about the statement of its creator, or the meanings of its elements.  The work’s energy, structure, and appropriation simply leave no room for an interpretative project.

I am disinterested, on a personal level, in self-glorifying indulgence, particularly in the art.  I am equally disinterested in, and maybe even irritated by, monuments.  History, together with human behavior specialists, psychologists and anthropologists, often observes with pity the wealth of poetry, songs, monuments, statues, films and literature produced directly at the wake of critical moments of history.   These practices are often locked in an indulging, romantic, and seldom critical, viewing of a nostalgic perception of these moments.  A view often carried out by the triumphant side while reconciling history according to ideologised narratives.  Monuments are an exportation of values, an attempt to immortalise a certain view of a moment while creating a false rhetoric.  Whatever shape they may take, they are by large totalitarian constructions awaiting to cave.  They stand no chance against the principles of change and the instantaneity of any given revolutionary project.  An artist, and by far a rebel, should surpass such problematic approaches.


4 Comments to “Monumental Narratives Waiting to Cave”

  1. I enjoyed reading your review of Lessons in Revolting, even though it seems to be written for someone who’s familiar with the performance, so there were bits I didn’t properly understand.

    Although your review is the only critical response I’ve heard (everyone I spoke to seemed to think the performance was great), I think had I seen it I also would have been rather critical. In general I tend to be against art that seeks interpretation and am against monumentality, and I would have been suspicious about what the performance was trying to achieve apart from emotivity. What you said about activists trying to monumentalize really made sense to me, and the passage about music was fascinating. I too like unresolvedness.

    There were a few points that I would have liked to have been expanded on further – it was quite tantalizing to read for that reason.

    I was intrigued by your assertion that “a much greater deal of processing the source experience” is required “before attempting to re-release it in a work of art” and wanted to know more about why you think that. I also wanted to know more about how this idea relates to your being “for unresolvedness instead of monumentalisation”. (It could seem natural to assume that less processing would lead to unresolvedness, rather than vice versa – so it would be nice to have the idea that more processing leads to unresolvedness elaborated on.) It would also be interesting to know more about what you think unresolvedness can be in art – and how it can relate to an emphasis on form rather than content, or at least conflation of style and content.

    “An artist, and by far a rebel, should surpass such problematic approaches.” I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant – does it mean that art should not be made after revolutions?

    (This is a problem I also had with Doa Aly’s review – due to linguistic vagueness, it seemed she was alternately for and against the idea of art-making during times of turmoil. Was she saying that any work made in such circumstances is bound to be full of “coarse realism” and cannot be aware that it is mediated? Or was she just saying that that particular performance was coursely realist and unaware? I felt like a good edit could have made her piece much clearer.)

    When you talk about history pitying post-revolutionary art I would love to have examples of this, because when I think of the French and Russian revolutions and the 1952 Egyptian revolution, I think of certain works of art made in their aftermath (Delacroix, Rodchenko, Salah Jahin) which seem wonderful because they were full of exuberance and possibility and hope – and if they were regretted at a later stage it was more by the artist themselves than by history, which embraced them.

    And when you say “and the guilt we are subjected to throughout the performance. This work is, equally, educational”, I want to know much more – it’s the only reference to guilt and I find the idea that that audience should be subjected to guilt enormously intriguing but it is not explained. Nor really is it explained how the performance is educational. What is being learnt?

    Finally, there are certain phrases that I don’t understand the meaning of, such as “Mustafa Said’s immensely appropriated live performing” and “energy, structure, and appropriation”. I didn’t understand the meaning of appropriation in these contexts.

    So while I think I am largely with you in terms of what you want art to be, and liked many points you bring up in the review, there are various details in it that I found over-concise. I don’t know if these comments I’ve made are useful at all, but I do find the topic under discussion really interesting and am glad it is being tackled in your blog, so I wanted to give some sort of feedback, however confused….

    • I dare say that i deliberately left a few blind spots in the review.  It also wasn’t edited, so what you are reading is basically a text written at one long session.

      I think it is critical to differentiate between art triggered and informed by personal experiences, and art that attempts to appropriate and reassert set rhetoric related to an experience.  The first allows for a great deal of unresolvedness, for posing questions and exploring vergin terrains, whereas the later seems to be drevin by a strange familiarity with how things “are” and what they “mean”.  It only allows a pre set of sentiments to take place.

      This is also what I meant by the work being educational.  A work that “knows” exactly which set of sentiments and responses are going to be evoked in a viewer is, conversaly, seeking to reaffirm them.  It tells us what we think, and what we are allowed to think.  Such experience is frustrating for the viewer, to say the least, even insulting.

      In the play, we are supposed to respond and feel a certain way.  The co- director says that it is a reaction to the way the revolution was portrayed in the media.  In other words, the show is narrative and seeks to tell. 

      Needless to say that the art sneared by specialist which I referred to is bad art.  It is the greater body of musicals, monuments, poems etc. which lacks any criticality, it is the socialist state art revered and celebrated in Stalinist Russia.  Egypt has a good repertoir of the such, mostly in pop culture.  When you look at such art it seems locked.  Locked in time and locked in its content.  It relies so heavily on the historical moment and its significance, its set of values and whatever it celebrates, that once the moment is gone it is reduced to sheer style.  Maybe even Camp (take Art Nouvou, and social realism). 

      This type of work, monuments included, seem to be resolved.  They have answered a question that no one even posed.  This for me personally is uninteresting.  And to answer your question: no, it is often that such resolved projects are created very soon after, even during, a moment of history, as they don’t care for processing or critiquing.  They allow no time for even trying to process the experience and what it meant, to try and formalise the questions.

      Finally, the guilt.  The show was sickening on that level.  It attempted to make the audience feel bad if they weren’t in tahrir (in particular) and if they didn’t stay in tahrir during very one of the sit ins.  It again allows no room for alternative narratives. we all here should believe in tahrir, or what they told us what tahrir is, and we all should have been with the few hundreds who were evacuated before Ramadan.  If not, we are traitors.  Simple.

  2. First off I would like to thank you for your post. While it jumped from one point to the next rather abruptly on occasion I believe it is a very important piece of commentary/criticism. All the more so because of the unhealthy lack of critical viewpoints on what was such a popular work/performance.

    I agree that the performance comfortably fit the label of telling the story of what has become known (and celebrated) worldwide as the ‘Egyptian revolution’. It seemed neatly packaged (and monumentalized). One easily points to this as yet another cultural product of the revolution and yet another attempt to re-present the story. There was nothing exceptional here. And as you rightly point out – narration did seem to be the overwhelming purpose of this performance. From the videos to the dancing to the monologues, what was new/fresh?

    Just about any video I see of the “revolution” triggers an emotional response to varying degrees. And I’m glad that you point out these are really no different from the thousands of shaky, hand-held, amateur videos available. It indeed begs the question of why videos (that we’ve seen so much of) are again used to give us the story (which we’ve heard so many times).

    There were moments of strength – perhaps one of the last segments with the repetitive dancing and the music was the highlight where both the music and the movements combined well. The other moment of interest was when one of the monologues sometimes echoed and sometimes led the recorded audio/sound of the same monologue. There wasn’t much to what was being said, but the back and forth between recorded and live, memory perhaps and its re-telling felt relevant.

    I think your post raises some provocative questions, not least the question of timing. And perhaps at the end of the day this is a reaction – performance. An example where a very powerful experience is almost immediately followed by an attempt to illustrate or formalise that experience through the lens of art. As the post describes it this does seem like a case of form following and serving content.

    The next question is the education question. If its purpose was educational – who was it made for? My impression was that those attending the performance, and those interested were already in some way involved in the revolution. So are we just recounting the story to ourselves? Who are we trying to educate?

    But getting into the supposed intentions and purposes is straying off track. The main question remains: what is it – or what it is (as Sontag reminds us). It. The performance I saw stood for something else. The dance was meant to be interpreted – oh that is when we were being frisked as we approached the square – etc. I wasn’t looking at the dancing itself, the performance itself, i was looking at the supposed meaning behind the dancing. The dancing was a mask. Couldn’t it be what it was: a dance, a performance, a monologue.

    There is no doubt that we are in historic times. The revolution was a truly momentous and incredible experience (complete with the banality of just sitting around and waiting to the adrenaline of being attacked with tear gas). Surely art that attempts to deal with it in some way should strive to provide it’s audience with much more of a contemplative pause. Should cause in the audience some sustained thought and not merely reflect/respond to/confirm to us how we’re feeling and what we’re seeing. Should cause us to receive the work (as Sontag describes). Should be Great Art.

    At the end of the day, it did provoke an attempt to articulate myself here and discuss it with other people – which is productive. And yet as I left the performance I wasn’t shaken or moved. I left finding myself trying to articulate why I couldn’t do more than shrug.

  3. I have been procrastinating on “re-acting” to this article for too long and much has already been said. First of all, I want to thank you ya Mohammed, because you seem to be looking at the play unapologetically and without any nostalgic or romantic idealization -even though sometimes the review’s language is too vague and a bit confusing.

    I am with you when you refer to Sontag, it was also the first reference that came up to my mind when I saw the play! The form serving the purposes of the content is just another way to keep stressing a dichotomization and a need of de-codification that I simply do not understand and represents a quite reactionary esthetic in my opinion.

    The part that I agree the most in the article is when you refer to the play as a monument, also because that uncovers some interesting contradictions. I felt that this educational devise transmits the lesson in a quite inconsistent way (and I am with you Taha when you ask who are we trying to educate…and why). Let’s accept for a moment this logic of separation between form and content, where the first is meant to represent the second. The play’s form in the end fails to express its supposed-to-be-content. For what I understood, the ultimate message of the play would be “the revolution is on and must go on” -without deepening much critical points of the revolutionary process, in my opinion. The way this lesson is presented though does transmit a general sense of celebration, as you say, it is a monumentalization of the revolution. Now, I envision any revolutionary process as a melted substance always moving, changing (as you say at the end of your article) that maybe requires no theory, but demands a lot of critical thinking. Instead no, the play’s “form” gave me the impression that the content was part of consensus-building process – main purpose of monument building – the play did not make me question or even think over the proposed content. At least, this was my feeling. Not just reactionary esthetic then, but also “reactionary ethic”, if you wish. (Or maybe the problem is simply in the play’s content and in its being not critical enough? Bha, I do not know, I guess all this separation between content and form confuses me, it is simply not for good for my brain).

    I understand that this play was conceived “on the spot”, obviously events are still unfolding and therefore it can be seen as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. I am sorry to say though that it fails to add anything interesting to this discussion.

    In fact, this process of monumentalization, that strengthens an identity-building process -with which I have about a million of problems- seems rather dangerous to me. I despise monuments I guess just as much as you do, for the same reasons that you enumerate, but also because they look at the past (and this I think is the play’s biggest contradiction and the contradiction that we face in “post-February revolutionary culture production”-whatever that means). Any monument you build tends to have the peculiar characteristic of celebrating something that happened and is meant to be placed in the past. The myth and rhetoric that monuments create can talk to the present but just about the past.
    Obviously we all agree that the revolution is in the present.

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