Walking into the gallery space, black phrases in English and Arabic, stenciled in tiny font on two of the stark white walls, make it difficult to overlook how imposing and dominant the bleak, empty sections of the wall seem in comparison to the small segments decorated with text.
The phrases themselves echo a stagnant desolation as they struggle to define the feelings that repress and hold us back.
“Disconcertedness: The feeling of not being focused or gathered; tied to the loss of control explicitly thematised in each moment of stalled or suspended action,” one stencil reads. Another one simply says “I’d prefer not to.”
‘Ugly Feelings’, the current exhibition at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, draws on the uncomfortable host of emotions that often accompany times of instability, while representing Townhouse’s attempt to respond – as an art institution – to the state of helplessness pervading the Egyptian public sphere.
One of the Arabic phrases stencilled on the wall in 'Ugly Feelings'
While the revolutionary turmoil that has afflicted Egypt for almost three years now has indisputably led to an explosion of creativity across various fields, it is also impossible to deny the despair, frustration, anger – as well as a whole range of other negative, crippling emotions – that have often gripped the country and its people since 25 January 2011 changed everything; an overbearing lack of agency that is extremely difficult to live with in times of such unprecedented change.
“During the summer, I was reading several texts exploring notions of precarity and affect, including Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings, from which the title of the show was taken," Townhouse curator and exhibition coordinator Ania Szremski said. "It all resounded really strongly with what I was experiencing in Egypt at the present moment; how in moments of extended trauma, certain emotions circulate that make it difficult to act," she added.
Szremski, Townhouse curator since 2011, admits that the gallery has faced daunting challenges throughout the past two and a half years. Plans have fallen through at the last minute, sometimes due to violence erupting on the streets outside the gallery (located in close proximity to Tahrir Square), or government-imposed curfews that brought the majority of Cairo’s cultural activities to a staggering halt.
“In July, shortly after [former president] Morsi's ouster, the project I had been planning to open the Townhouse season with in September was cancelled, something that has happened relatively frequently since the 2011 Revolution. This leaves Townhouse, as an institution, scrambling to bring in new projects to keep our spaces activated,” she explains. “In this particular instance, however, I didn't want to approach another artist at the last minute for a show. I didn't want to pretend that we were carrying on business as usual.”
In the curatorial statement for ‘Ugly Feelings’, boldly included in the exhibition as part of the works on display, Szremski writes that she had been sifting through a catalogue of a recent exhibition at Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija and was impressed at how the institution frankly stated that they had organised that particular exhibition (created by reusing archival materials from a previously-hosted exhibition) mainly because of a critical lack of funds. She was thus driven to embrace a similar frankness and transparency when dealing with the troubles faced by Townhouse, and ‘Ugly Feelings’ became a part of that policy.
Szremski also hopes that the exhibition can act as a step towards a new concept she is pondering as a possible solution to current difficulties: the idea of an institution holding an exhibition without an artist. “I'm still figuring it out, but basically I'm thinking about what an art institution can be, aside from a host or platform for other people’s work and programmes – the institution as producer, as artist,” she elaborated. “I want to make an exhibition where the institution is the sole author. I think ‘Ugly Feelings’ is a gesture towards this in that the curatorial statement is presented as an artwork [in and of] itself.”
The exhibition is comprised of an unusual display of artworks, most of them digital or Internet-based, ranging from videos to interactive panels to computer exercises. While these pieces might not have one clear, common theme, they all share an unsettling, somewhat disturbing quality, and generate similar feelings of alienation, or of being misunderstood.
“The pieces weren't selected to create a specific narrative and collectively might feel a bit incoherent, but I think this is also sort of the point of the show [which],” Szremski explained, “communicates a certain irritation and dissatisfaction common to the present moment.”
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War by Olia Liliana, one of the artworks displayed in the exhibition, is a hyperlink, browser-based narrative often referred to as the first work of Internet art. It unfolds to reveal an abstract, somewhat unfulfilling dialogue between a couple after the man comes back from battle, paired with blurry and highly-pixelated black and white images. The piece is displayed as a projection on a large table in the middle of one of the gallery’s rooms. “It’s one of my favorite net artworks and I think some of the emotions provoked in it – jealousy, confusion, irritation, dissatisfaction – are very relevant,” Szremski said. “I was keen to present it in a way that expanded the experience of an Internet artwork into a physical, public experience; that’s why I projected it on the table, to give [the] sense of something tangible, like a book on a table.”
Another engaging piece is Annie Abrahams’ Separation. Based on a text written by the artist in the hospital, it is another computer-based narrative where the words unravel as you click away, and are interspersed with instructions for physical exercises that prompt you to caress yourself at times and to muster your inner courage at others. If you click too fast, a message appears on the monitor, scolding you for being too hurried or unfocused.
Moving Excerpts by Sebastian Alvarez is a video where a masked figure gives a monologue on language and the idea of communication via words, accompanying it with animated hand gestures that are almost distracting, thus emphasising the intersection between the verbal and the non-verbal. "I had originally wanted to show Moving Excerpts, as well as Separation in an Internet café exhibition in 2011 called 'Talk to Me', which was cancelled due to the events of Mohamed Mahmoud,” Szremski remembered, “then I felt that they made a lot of sense in the context of ‘Ugly Feelings’ and I was happy to have the chance to finally show them in Egypt.”
'Moving Excerpts' by Sebastian Alvarez
The exhibition also includes a number of videos that Szremski scavenged from the Internet. “I was interested in intermingling digital artworks with other kinds of visual material circulating through those same networks that are dismissed as silly, trashy, kitsch or amateur, but also reveal something about culture and mood,” she says. Three of those videos are tutorials Szremski found on YouTube, instructing viewers on how to expressively register emotion on their faces and understand it on the faces of others, falling in line with the theme of communication in Moving Excerpts and the general air of disconnectedness that permeates ‘Ugly Feelings’.
Another YouTube video included in the show is Auroratone, an abstract interaction of colours that move soothingly to a Bing Crosby soundtrack. Szremski sees it as the show’s “moment of redemption,” especially as it is the final piece of work on display. “It’s one of several films that were made in the mid-1940s with the specific intention of being used as therapy for soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and other mental or emotional troubles after World War II,” Szremski elaborated. “I think it’s quite beautiful and also very interesting, since it can be considered one of the earliest examples of video art.”
'Auroratone', an example of videos used to treat traumatized soldiers after World War II, displayed as part of 'Ugly Feelings'
Weekly film screenings also take place at the Townhouse Library every Tuesday as part of ‘Ugly Feelings’. Like the artworks in the exhibition, Szremski selected films that were coloured by a certain mood. “The films I chose, which are all being shown in Cairo for the first time, have been written about by film theorists as representative of a kind of ‘cinema of precarity’,” she clarified. “Certain kinds of plot points; a sort of purposely sloppy camerawork and low-budget aesthetics tend to characterise films that were made in difficult or transitional socio-political moments worldwide, whether during the transition out of communism or during a stock market crash.”
On two of the screening nights, the films shown were instead compilations of videos found on the Internet, collected by two artists, Karim Lotfy and Yazaan El-Zo’bi, upon Szremski’s request. “I made a point to ask them to curate a playlist of material taken directly from the Internet that deals somehow with the same moods, sort of as an extension of how I was trying to bring non-art Internet material into the exhibition itself,” she said. “The good thing is that these nights are more humorous and playful, offering moments of relief in the midst of the more depressing material.”
‘Ugly Feelings’ may not be a particularly enjoyable experience to all visitors; some might not even relate to it at all. However, its true value lies in the decision made by Townhouse, expressed through the exhibition and eloquently phrased in its curatorial statement: “As complicated as working in this situation may be… we also have a responsibility in this context to stay open, to provide a place for people to assemble, to express opinions, to argue… Simply not acting is not the answer, but finding a better way to respond to this context is.”
'Ugly Feelings' runs until 20 November in Cairo's Townhouse Gallery.
Film screenings take place every Tuesday at 7pm at the Townhouse Library.
10 Al-Nabarawy Street, off Champollion Street, Downtown, Cairo