How DCAF festival got decaffeinated: Photos

Angie Balata, Monday 13 Apr 2015

Ahram Online looks into this year's Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (DCAF), it's positioning in Egypt's culture scene, programming, outreach, its concepts on open and closed spaces, and the festival's claims versus delivery

Sednaoui store
Cairo's Sednaoui department store hosts DCAF's How Much? 8 April 2015. (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all -- John Lennon

On Thursday, 2 April 2015, I was at the Greek Campus to catch the third night of music of DCAF’s month-long programme. Featured on the stage were DJ Hatem El-Chiaty; Mahraganat idols, 8%; and the UK’s famed DJ and producer, Goldierocks. Surrounded by DCAF’s usual heavyweight crew of bodyguards, along with security guys from Falcon Security and various vendors, including food and cigarettes, the venue was prepared for the expected masses that follow 8%’s Okka and Ortega.

Walking into the venue, I was surprised to find no large lineups, no throngs of people waiting to get in. The crowd was small and didn’t reflect the diversity I was anticipating. Instead, the audience was a mixture of the ‘usual’ DCAF attendees: artists, downtown regulars, DCAF staff and friends, embassy and cultural centre personnel, and foreigners.

Various theories were offered for this lack of diversity, including the hefty ticket price of LE50, the heavily controlled Greek Campus which is still seen by most of Cairenes as a bourgeoisie haven and inaccessible to most, or that DCAF staff still haven’t found a formula of outreach that actually speaks to and connects with locals.

DCAF staff told me later that one of the major reasons for the lack of turnout was the announcement by 8% of a free concert the week after their DCAF performance.

In spite of this, and as with many events within DCAF, the audience, the performances and the venues seemed to be out of sync.

This year marks DCAF’s fourth edition. The festival closed on 9 April and it is time we step back and start asking the tough questions.

African Export
African Export perform inside the GrEEK Campus, American University in Cairo. 20 March 2015 (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

Positioning DCAF

DCAF is positioned as “Egypt’s only international multi-disciplinary contemporary arts festival,” which includes theatre, performing arts, visual arts, music, and film. The underlying philosophy of the festival according to its artistic director and founder, Ahmed El-Attar, is that art transcends society’s big problems, including war, adversity, adversity, and illiteracy. More specifically, art is not to be produced or consumed as a luxury item, but rather as a fundamental component of social development.
A graduate of the AUC, El-Attar is both an academic powerhouse and expert practitioner in the arts world, as a theatre director, playwright, the founder and manager of Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, Temple Independent Theatre Company, and, most recently, Orient Productions for Film and Theatre.

Beyond his daunting CV, El-Attar is best known in Cairo circles for his ability to create networks of support and funding for grand ideas. Where most in the independent and alternative art scene have been struggling to keep their ships afloat, El-Attar has been on the lucrative end of success.

DCAF has benefitted from this skill, both financially and nationally. On the national scale, DCAF was advertised in the calendar of events for Egypt’s recent economic summit—a nod of sorts from the state. And, it’s no wonder considering the international funding and local sponsor support the festival has received—a list that reads like a who’s who of money. With an annual budget ranging between 3 and 4 million Egyptian pounds (depending on the year), a number provided by DCAF organisers, this festival is no small affair.

In the standards of festival making, DCAF is well positioned to be a game changer. However, if one were to take a deeper look, the most important components, namely audience development and audience growth, seemed to have been neglected in the grander scheme of things.

Abyusif performs in DCAF, at Sherazade club. 26 March 2015 (Photo: courtesy of DCAF)

Programming: Why and for whom

‘Contemporary art’ is a heavily packaged term that can be taken to mean different things. For DCAF it is defined as “…art is that produced during our lifetimes, and is characterised by its interactive nature, and its more socially conscious approach to artistic creation in a world which is culturally diverse, technologically connected, and constantly evolving.”

In the overall programming of the festival, there has been a general move to bring to the Egyptian audience the unique, at times the unusual, but, most certainly a quality of performances that connects them with the world out there and with new ideas.

The colossal undertaking involved to make this possible is left to the responsibility of four curators: performing arts and urban visions (Ahmed El-Attar), music (Mahmoud Refaat), Film (Rasha Salti), and visual arts (Mai Abou El-Dahab), with film and visual arts changing every year.

For his part, El-Attar, for example, has focused on choosing artists “…based on the professional quality of their work and that’s a mix of many things based on a sort of connection with the work or with the general atmosphere, it’s a very subjective thing.” With performances that are more audience-involved, the audience numbers thus far for the performing arts and urban visions, in particular, are showing great success. Performances like African Export, Mission Roosevelt, and the Iliad have connected well with those who attended.

DCAF incorporates Women on Walls (WOW) project. In this photo the founder of GrEEK Campus Ahmed El-Alfy steps in to remove graffiti insulting WOW co-initiator Mia Grondahl on Youssef El-Guindy street. April 2015. (Photo: David Cordova)

But, whom is DCAF connecting with?

Take for example the music programme. According to Refaat, “With D-CAF there’s a responsibility now towards the local platform. It’s becoming one of the major fronts for the exposure of musicians and the art scene in general.” What this translates to, in terms of a curatorial direction, is his desire to “promote youth culture and the development of popular music in general. It’s a contemporary arts festival so we have to respect these ‘contemporary’ trends that are happening locally and abroad. By contemporary I don’t mean the avant-garde and very strange; the music programme will always be about urban, popular, contemporary shows.”

Accordingly, the ‘urban youth culture’, for Refaat means the shaabi scene, for Egypt, and electronic music DJs for the international scene. Many of the acts Refaat has chosen over the years for DCAF are heavily tied to a restricted definition of what constitutes ‘urban youth culture’ and that, at least locally, and have a strong correlation with his label, 100 Copies.

The programming weight given to the electronic, rap, and the shaabi genres do not encompass the musical variety that we have locally, nor the aim of exposing musicians to a wider audience.

For example, if shaabi is the popular genre locally, does it make sense to have it figure prominently in the last two DCAF editions to the detriment of exploring other locally produced genres? Do the international acts, like Boris Brejcha and Goldierocks, who are tied with the Western ‘urban youth’ club cultures benefit the local target audience, the majority of whom do not relate to these scenes?

Illustratively, a quick scan of the global music stage would have offered a plethora of options that would have achieved the festivals goals, the programming vision, and connected well with the local audience at a much larger scale. Accordingly, how much effort has DCAF invested to solve cultural segregation and integration beyond the socioeconomic divide?

Mission Roosvelt
Mission Roosvelt. Actors on wheelchairs move from the GrEEK Campus at the American University in Cairo to stroll across the neighboring streets. 26 March 2015. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

From open places to closed spaces: Gender balance and social divides

In the path of ‘contemporary’ the festival emphasises the downtown because this used to be the core of Egypt’s artistic and cultural movement and, after the revolution, “…has been the epicentre of not just an artistic movement, but also a social and political one, calling for, amongst other things, a wider arena for self-expression.”

It should be noted that the idea for this festival and the connection with the downtown was not an accidental birth of inspiration. In a previous interview with AO, El-Attar explained: “I met Karim Shafei from the Ismaelia Real Estate Company (the real estate development company responsible for the downtown district). He purchased several buildings, including Cinema Radio and Hotel Viennoise, which is used as a gallery at the moment. His idea was to set up a festival to boost the image of downtown and to reinvigorate its cultural dynamism. I was asked to be in charge of this project. Immediately I thought of a multidisciplinary festival." Al-Ismaelia, which is a conglomerate of Saudi and Egyptian big businessmen, including Sameh Sawiris, mostly provides the venues used in the festival.

This year, other partners have opened their spaces to DCAF events, including the Greek Campus, Goethe Institute and Zawya, in addition to underused or closed spaces, including the old French Consulate and Sednaoui Department Store.

Despite this, it is not apparent that the wider sector of the audience downtown has been either interested in or aware of DCAF. This is potentially the result of two major problems. The first relates to the audience engagement, development and growth plans which, for the most part, don’t seem to be apparent in DCAF’s strategy.

The 8% performance, for example, should have drawn larger crowds from the area or at least there would should been a buzz considering that Okka and Ortega were playing. However, when local shopkeepers, doormen, and café owners, were asked about what was happening at the Greek Campus, most replied that ‘it was some AUC affair’—an important reflection when one considers that the AUC has always been treated as a ‘no-go zone’ for most people. 

Outside Sherazade, as another example, tables upon tables line the alleyways outside and cafes are abundant. Yet, none of the locals seemed interested in what was taking place there.

Inside Sherazade, where most of DCAF’S music events are held as the night wore on, the audience became gender disproportionate, thus, highlighting the second major problem with DCAF’s connection with the audience: cultural divide. Using a venue that serves alcohol and where shows begin late into the night emphasizes segregated space, rather than integrate audiences. In a country where early curfew for females is still predominant and where the larger sector of audiences will not attend shows in venues where alcohol is served, how can one expect to connect with a broader audience?

Great arts festivals are not just about interesting acts and technical quality; rather, the best festivals are where audiences feel welcome and where festival organisers make the concentrated effort to connect.

Why B
South Korean born and current Copenhagen/Berlin based DJ Why Be (Tobias Lee Christensen) performs in DCAF, at Sherazade club. 26 March 2015 (Photo: courtesy of DCAF)

From numbers to people

DCAF’s 2014 figures as provided by the organisers boasted:
• 189 artists from 17 countries
• 80 high quality performances, workshops and other events
• 50,000 followers on Facebook and 1,000 on Twitter
• 60 percent of events being free
• Attendance of 10,100 people
• A reach to over 200,000 individuals locally and internationally

Setting aside that measuring individual reach locally and globally is an almost impossible statistic to account for beyond website hit counts and social media post reach, which don’t offer much practically, the actual number of attendees in light of reach and social media presence accounts for, in the best of circumstances, 20 percent of a potential audience.

With all the international support, via embassies and cultural centers, the heavy sponsorship, the wide access to venues and artists, the massive staff and the substantial price tag of LE3-4million, why is audience turnout so low?

Putting up posters around downtown that don’t visually connect with the majority of the target audience, to announce a festival that uses venues that most of the local population still considers to be private spaces is not going to engage, no matter how much money is spent. Understanding and accounting for the deep social divides between the different populations downtown and strategising to overcome this is also a fundamental step for a festival wanting to broaden its audience base.

Cultural divides and social segregation are major developmental problems in Egypt. Art serves as an important tool to solve and overcome these issues. I walk away that night from the Greek Campus and stop to talk to a doorman in one of the buildings nearby. He’s wondering what is going on and I try to explain the festival. He smiles and says ‘this is good, young people need fun’ as we both stand outside staring at the colossal tech park that is the Greek Campus. It’s sad when art serves the privileged.

The Tender Violence
The Tender Violence perform inside GrEEK Campus, American University in Cairo. 26 March 2015. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)



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