Hydrarchy: Cairo's CIC hosts sea exhibition

Rowan El-Shimi, Thursday 15 Dec 2011

Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) Cairo hosts "Hydrarchy - Transitional & Transformative Seas," an exhibition and symposium exploring the seas as socio-economic, cultural and political spaces


“Hydrarchy – Transitional & Transformative Seas” opened Friday 9 December and features the works of six artists, filmmakers along with a group of researchers. This is phase two of the project; the first phase took place in September 2010 in the London Gasworks and the Universityof Central London. In January 2012, a symposium will take place reflecting on the exhibition’s themes as well as looking into ways of challenging the Gazablockade via the Mediterranean Sea.

One cannot physically draw borders on water, and when on water a person or boat is never in the same spot for more than a second. This and other aspects have made it so that the issues pertaining to 71 per cent of the earth’s surface operate with a very different paradigm compared to land.

The exhibition explores various alternative aspects of the sea, which in traditional narratives is represented as mysterious and dangerous and is often romanticised. The project’s investigative idea largely centres on the Mediterranean basin due to its economic and military location as well as the constant migration from North Africato Europe.

“Our interest in the topic started through our exposure to the book Ship of Fools by Michel Foucault which is a ship that sailed through the lowland canals of Europeserving as a container of insane citizens,” Jankowicz said.

“It got us thinking that by putting things on a boat you can externalise them and not have to deal with them while at the same time maintain control.”

Jankowicz also referenced how “offshore” has been used in finance to avoid nationally imposed taxation: an idea similar to that of pirate radio (radio stations in undisclosed locations at sea). Pirate radio as a means to challenge media censorship was of interest to them.

The exhibition showcases seven works that deal with the sea; Lawrence Weiner uses words to create a sculpture of the sea showcased on CIC’s staircase; Xaviera Simmons exhibits her collection of grainy news images that touch upon the conditions of illegal migration; Ayed Arafah collected sea samples through friends and aquaintances from all over the world into a large-couch-sized- bag of sea water; Otolith Group’s film Hydra Decapita tells the narrative of slave shipping across the Atlantic and the legends behind it.

Uriel Orlow uses photographs and film to tell the story of little-known historical episode in 1967 during the 6-day-war between Egypt and Israel where fourteen international cargo ships were trapped in the Suez Canal in the grey area between the countries for eight years forming a temporary international community while Bouchra Khalili uses video and silkscreen prints to draw an alternative map of the Mediterranean based on minorities’ migration paths.

Take to the Sea – a curated research archive

What is quite novel in this exhibition is a curated research corner conducted by Take to the Sea, an open-ended multimedia research project on ‘irregular’ migration from Egypt to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, founded in 2008 by Lina Attalah (Managing Editor of Egypt Independent), Laura Cugusi (Italian researcher, journalist and photographer) along with Nida Ghouse, Shaimaa Yehia and Mohamed Abdel Gawad.

“We were very curious about a phenomenon that the [media] coverage of was very linear and restricted somehow which had a fuller and potentially much more interesting story,” Attalah explained. “We were interested in uncovering the depths of this story by collecting the narratives from the villages [from which the migrants leave],” she added.

The dissemination of information was an objective of Take to the Sea – beside the research aspect – which is why they resorted to multimedia outputs rather than published research that only gets discussed in academic circles. The project was conceived at the beginning and funded at the AmericanUniversityin Cairo (AUC).

“It could have potentially become an academic endeavour but we did not want to go into this direction for purposes of dissemination,” Attalah told Ahram Online.

After producing a documentary and audio stories the group decided to start looking deeper into the issue. They had a discussion with Bassem El-Baroni from the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum on the relationship of information, art and activism and the role of information in people’s life.

“We decided to do more reading and to collect from the past instead of present. We found literally references in Egyptian and Italian contemporary history,” Cugusi said.

“Mia [Jankowicz] was interested because we as researchers were not directly involved with the world of contemporary art so it was a way, metaphorically, to explore a different territory. It was also a way for us to be lost at sea because we don’t know this language so we were like migrants travelling through this sea without knowing where we would end up,” Cugusi commented on their curated research exhibition at Hydrarchy.

Take to the Sea’s corner has various elements: a computer where one can go through multimedia archives on migration, along with recorded tapes, books, academic research and even hand written notes by the researchers.

“We decided to put everything without categorising what was more relevant or what was less relevant because everything was relevant,” Cugusi told Ahram Online. “It’s an invitation to get lost in this archive and not try to impose what people should know from the researchers’ perspective,” she explained further.

“We also decided to include our personal experiences and memories so that’s why we included our notebooks and handwritten notes, to represent the fact that we made from the beginning what was only the collection of information and academic official narratives to our personal in depth accounts from the protagonists of this story,” she added.

Attalah and Cugusi themselves experienced the theme of Hydrarchy personally when Attalah joined Canadian Flotilla Tahrir that was sailing to Gaza, challenging the blockade last month.

“Hydrarchy is all about new meanings. The act of being in international borders for five days  with the aim of reaching Gaza[while sharing the experience with Cugusi and the world through telling the story] makes a statement on trying to establish a new meaning for the sea. Even though [the flotilla] failed [to reach Gaza], it was successful in finding this new meaning,” Attalah reflected on the experience.

“The sea allows activists to challenge the blockade of Gaza,” Jankowicz said. “If this is done on land it would be far more dangerous as well as more difficult,” she explained.


Following the exhibition there will be a symposium scheduled on 6 January 2012, which is open to the public, but with limited seating so booking is recommended. The morning sessions will be dedicated to a general overview of Hydrarchy’s concerns from theoretical and artistic perspectives with a keynote lecture from leading post colonial scholar Professor Ian Chambers followed by a discussion with Take to the Sea. Later there will be a roundtable discussion on the role of the flotillas heading to Gazainviting key activists and legal experts.

“The sea is always represented in the media coverage of irregular migration as a place that separates—What about exploring the sea as a place that connects. It’s not about disconnection, it’s about connection: a connection that is disrupted by the constant construction of cultural and political divides,” Atallah said. “Hydrarchy is an exercise to see the sea differently,” she added.


The exhibition runs until 7 January at the Contemporary Image Collective

22 Abdel Khalek Tharwat, Downtown Cairo

Tuesday through Saturday between the hours of 12pm – 8pm

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