Townhouse Gallery’s current multimedia exhibition A Worthy Degenerate is largely comprised of video works from seven artists, making an argument that the low-resolution digital image should be valued the way high quality digital works are.
Whether low quality copies of masterpieces or quick phone photos, these poor images populate our digital world, and whether they are a counter-revolution to high definition imagery or not, they demand acknowledgment as originals in their own right.
Curator Sara El-Adl came up with the concept for the show while reading a text by German artist, filmmaker and video documentary essayist Hito Steyerl titled The Wretched of the Screen: In Defense of the Poor Image.
“The good image of experimental film and video art may be stored in archives, screened only occasionally, like a dinosaur on tour,” writes El-Adl in the curatorial statement.
While Steyerl argues that these low quality reproductions of high quality works should be valued for their role in complementing and supporting their original counterparts by allowing them a wider accessibility, El-Adl takes it a step further.
“Steyerl was focusing on reproductions, and I thought there are also all these images already created in poor quality that stand their own ground, shouldn’t these also be defended?” El-Adl tells Ahram Online.
As her first curatorial experience, with this concept in mind El-Adl handpicked works from artists already dealing with these types of images. All seven artists are linked by this poor image in terms of technique, an undercurrent to their own respective/varying subject matters.
“I was already familiar with Youssef Bashat's work and contacted him for this project in particular, which is called Dead Babies because it is made from bits and pieces that didn’t make it into other projects,” she says.
In contrast with its title, Dead Babies is quite fresh. A video art piece on loop, the footage is a blur of places and people that can only be partially seen as hints when the camera slows down. The footage is edited seamlessly to resemble one long take and just feels like celebrating a slice of life in fast-forward.
Jasmina Metwaly’s project was part of her documentary film Out in The Street, which recently won the Best Feature Film Award at the 5th Latin-Arab International Film Festival.
Displayed on a television set, the work titled Evidence of Absence is a seven hour-long documentary footage taken on a phone camera that was meant to be a worker’s judicial proof against the factory he works at, but wasn't allowed to be shared with the court.
“I had seen this clip from the footage and knew that she wanted to display this clip somewhere, thinking it was a shame that it wasn't allowed to be shown in court as evidence and wanted to give it back a function,” El-Adl comments.
She continues saying that by “placing it in an art exhibit, there’s this irony of a documentary that’s out of context and useless.”
Metwaly’s piece is perhaps the most distant from the audience of all the artworks, owing to its documentary nature. However, it is one of the most directly linked to the exhibit's theme, the organic footage acting as a testimony to the poor image’s value that the exhibit defends.
Notes from the Carbon Coast by Malak Helmy had come to the curator’s mind while she was reading Steyerl’s text.
“When I asked her to include it in the show, it turned out that the essay was already an influence on this video work,” El-Adl says.
Chamber of Rosary by Sidi Benamar (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
Most of the projects are dated earlier than 2015 but for two, that of Sidy Benamar and Ikon Chiba, both installations.
“The work itself is something I’ve been working on for two years, but it all came together a month before the show,” Benamar, a Moroccan artist based in Cairo, tells Ahram Online.
Titled Chamber of Rosary, his multimedia installation is like a case study of the Baron Empain Palace, which stands as a gloriously abandoned shell welcoming a plethora of myths.
Besides research on the "official history" of the palace, Benamar was drawn to the rich collection of rumours surrounding it.
“Most of the myths and urban legends poured into this one room as the centre of all these stories; like the secret tunnel that led to the church was there, and that it was covered in mirrors and bleeding all the time.”
His Chamber of Rosary installation comprises three parts; a circular arrangement of triangular stones evoking that of a ritual, five lenticular photographic prints and a video resembling a dynamic slide show, with eerie music by collaborating sound artist Alas.
“The work is how the palace can sustain itself by presentation, because today, aside from being considered a landmark, it serves mostly as a backdrop for Heliopolis, and rarely resilient enough to host commercial events in its premises ” Benamar says.
The video acts as a guided illusive real estate tour of the premises and its wonders, and visually it brings to mind the word kitsch.
“I wouldn’t describe it as kitsch per se. My work resonates with Internet imagery as an aesthetic I am constantly subjected to during my research,” the artist says.
The lenticular prints are of coloured 35mm film scenes from within the palace, and the way they shift with the viewer’s movement and how they seem to melt mysteriously, hiding their contents, renders them ghost-like.
“In the city, djinn stories and urban legends don’t echo as much as they would in a small village. I wanted to recreate terror in a very subtle form,” says Benamar.
Chiba’s installation titled Mirror Mouth: Studying the Eyes under the Influence, includes a black and white video focusing on a man’s eyes, as well as an installation in a sink and a small alcove with tiny squared mirrors fixed into the walls like mosaic.
“Chiba focuses on the eyes as a physical portal to the inner image or the soul,” El-Adl says.
The reference to the mouth in the title suggests consumption, or how we take things in and perceive them.
There’s also this play of mirrors as a subject, which leads the viewer into questioning the physical or outer image, and how the influence of a drug can affect perception of the outer world, whether it can reflect, distort or merge multiple realities.
Mirror Mouth: Studying the Eyes under the Influence by Ikon Chiba (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
The sound engineer, while installing the DVDs for one of Walid El-Sawi’s two videos, was disappointed to find the quality of the image of the final piece to be so low after they had been setting and preparing all the equipment for HD.
“This is exactly the conversation we are having by this exhibition. He owes it to the artwork to display it in the best quality, even if the subject is a poor image,” says El-Adl.
The exhibition space itself adds a complimentary context and layer of irony.
With the Townhouse Gallery’s recent expansion into its neighbouring apartment, a number of the works are displayed on bare stone walls, aged chequered floor tiles, multiple nooks in the walls and the old sink utilised by Chiba.
The exhibit becomes an experience. As we reflect on pixelated images we think of crumbling walls, as Jasmina Metwaly’s artwork re-appropriates footage, we walk in an art space that was once a Masonic lodge.
“It was really exciting working on that expansion, which happened while we were already putting the show together and had be prepared on a very tight schedule,” says El-Adl.
Despite the exhibit being very well coordinated and cohesive despite the large space, El-Adl says the time factor led her to make certain limitations.
“Christian Marclay (A renowned Swiss-American artist and composer) accepted my invitation to join the exhibit, and the plan was to have his installation in Townhouse's Factory Space as part of the exhibit."
“I wanted it to be an international show, because it is not just a local subject, but rather a wider discourse,” she says.
As his working partner and sound engineer was unable to finish travel papers on time, in the end Marclay was not able to join the show.
“Had I enough time, it could have expanded even more,” says El-Adl, yet her curatorial debut already expands the artistic discourse with its solid defence of the poor image.
Do-Mystic Universe by Walid El-Sawy (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)
The exhibition opened on 29 November and runs till 12 January
Townhouse Gallery, 10 Nabarawy street, off Champlolion street, Downtown, Cairo.
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