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Light in outer space: Egypt's revolution at Australia's digital arts festival

Ahram Online speaks to the curators of exUrban Screens, which – as part of its exploration of international digital art and its effort to make the global local – featured revolutionary Egyptian works

Sara Elkamel, Wednesday 18 Jul 2012
Heba Amin, My love for you, Egypt, increases by the day, 2012
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In Frankston, on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, global digital artwork was showcased in June and July on the city’s walls and buildings, transforming the urban landscape into a sight of artistic discovery. The project, titled exUrban Screens, strived for the metamorphosis of the static cityscape into a canvas for cultural activity, while addressing the idea of boundaries and borders; psychological or physical, local and global.

Held between June 23 and July 7, the project, held under the theme, Is There Light in Outer Space? encouraged passersby and locals to think of their position in a global sense by changing their familiar environment to a web of digital images exported from the world over. To engage the community in the cultural project, the exhibition takes “digital art” to a whole level. A mobile application and virtual exhibition were developed to supplement the programme, enhancing the experience for unassuming wanderers across the city.

One of the global phenomena that the festival implores audiences to pay attention to is the Arab Spring. Including works two Egyptians, Ahmed Basiony’s 30 Days of Running in the Space (2011) and My Love for You, Egypt, Increases by the Day by Heba Amin (2012), the festival helped actualise distant realities while exposing Frankston to images directly from the Arab world.

The film by Ahmed Basiony, a digital artist martyred during the initial 18 days of the January 25 revolution, has since his death been screened at the Venice Biennale, Liverpool, among other locations. It features mobile-shot photos from the protests leading up to his death that render the highly media-mediated Arab Spring much more personal and real.

The project perhaps proved that there is indeed light in outer space, through generating hope in the future of places where uncertainty prevails and political realities are contested.

Ahram Online corresponded with the curators of exUrban Screens: (Is There) Light in Outer Space? Matthew Perkins and Vince Dziekan, and they discussed the concept behind the ground-breaking festival of global digital art.

Ahram Online (AO): What is the overall vision of (Is There) Light in Outer Space?

Curators (C): exUrban Screens was a project that aimed at engaging audiences through a variety of digital media in the 'outer' spaces that characterise the frontiers of our ever-expanding cities. On a very practical level we wanted to challenge the audience to see public urban space as a space for cultural activity and dialogue rather than purely a space for commerce.

We proposed the question (Is There) Light in Outer Space? as a theme for a number of reasons. Australian artist Ian de Gruchy covered a 12-storey building with projected imagery every night so this acted as a beacon that could be seen from some distance. From a special viewing point, cars lined up every night to view the work so it was like an old-style drive-in cinema.

On a conceptual level, the idea of (Is There) Light in Outer space? asks the audience to consider is there ‘light’ (thinking how light symbolises hope amongst a myriad of other things) away from a centralised system where ‘important’ things occur in the urban heart of the city. Or more globally, in Australia’s case, we still look to Europe or USA for acknowledgement. So in a way, we are trying to start a conversation that things are occurring away from the ‘centres’ that are of vital importance.

The web and media encourage a more decentralised view of the world and in the case of the Arab Spring events (thinking about the works by Basiony and Amin), this is very much the case. So we wanted to engage in issues relating to urbanality at the local level but also social, political and cultural issues more broadly. This is where the inclusion of works by artist such as Ahmed Basiony is very important to the project because they engage in these ideas in a both a global and local sense.

(Is There) Light in Outer Space? can be read very practically as being about light, but on a philosophical level the question is about hope and the future especially regarding places were the political and geographical realities are contested – in a state of flux and full of uncertainty.

AO: How was exUrban Screens structured?

C: The main exhibition section was held at the Frankston Arts Centre’s Cube 37, and featured the Australian premier of two installations previously exhibited at the 2011 Venice Biennale – Sigalit Landau’s Azkelon and Ahmed Basiony’s powerful 30 Days of Running in the Space. Also showing was Heba Amin’s My Love for You, Egypt and Brian Alfred’s animation It’s Already the End of the World which screened nightly on Cube 37’s exterior media façade.

Complementing this exhibition was a multifaceted public space programme, including a commissioned large-scale public projection by Australian media artist, Ian de Gruchy. The curated "(outer) spaces" programme incorporates a number of site-specific presentations of screen and projection works spanning the central business precinct of Frankston by selected international and national artists, including Sophie Clements, Karl Lemieux, Paul Catanese, John Warwicker, Kit Wise, Darren Sylvester and David Rosetzkey.

An augmented reality (AR) mobile application has been designed to support the festival programme, and includes a special edition virtual exhibition of works by Brian Alfred. Additionally, a series of hosted walking tours will be coordinated on selected nights during the festival to enhance the visiting experience.

AO: Tell us more about the works of the two Egyptian artists featured in the project, and the reasons for including them.

C (Matthew Perkins): Both of us had strong personal responses to seeing Ahmed Basiony’s work previously. The events across that region of the world were on everyone’s mind as they were unfolding before our eyes through the media so the work immediately had an impact.

I am really interested by performative video-works and was initially struck by Basiony’s engagement with the body, and the elements of bio-feedback that he utilised. Once the work’s larger structure unfolded (facilitated by Basiony’s close friend Shady El-Noshokaty and curator Aida Eltorie) with the inclusion of images from Basiony’s mobile phone shot only days before his untimely death the effects of the events became very personal and heartfelt.  That is the power of the work – that events that are distanced by the media can suddenly become very personal and grounded in the body. We can all relate to that.

We found Heba Amin’s work recent project resonated very strongly with a number of notions we wanted to explore in the overall project, including, again, the idea about the sphere of influence that individuals can have by using social media to bypass boundaries imposed from outside. This was a very important idea we wanted to respond to in the curatorial plan.

AO: How has the inclusion of international digital artwork enhanced the project?

C: We wanted the central ideas to have local, national and international relevance. We also wanted the audience to experience the ideas from diverse locations and to see other people’s perspectives of the world but not just for the sake of internationalism but because the inclusion of these works responded to the issues regarding boundaries and borders.

AO: Is the concept of outdoor art common in Australia? Do you see a trend for art in "outer spaces" worldwide?

C: Urban screen festivals run in a number of cities around the world so they are not uncommon and there are a few examples in Australia. Showing art outside the gallery system has been a strategy that has existed especially since the 1960s when artists wanted to challenge the authority and status quo. It’s a very direct way to engage the community in art. We ran guided tours through the city every night during the exhibition and they were all booked out so we achieved our aim of connecting with the community.

The inclusion in our curatorial design of an augmented reality application for iPhones is relatively new and something we had not seen before used in this way. People were wandering the streets, iPhones out the front, looking for geo-tagged virtual work that we had placed at specific locations and could only be seen though smart-phones. We are sure the use of this type of technology will increase now as it becomes more accessible.

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