D-CAF Reflections: Worthy event deserves better marketing

Rowan El Shimi, Thursday 2 May 2013

Egypt's Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) ends this week after providing Cairo with an array of strong performances. Ahram Online reflects on the festival's strengths and weaknesses

D-CAF Closing Night at Falaki Theatre
D-CAF closing night in Falaki Theater (Photo: Courtesy of D-CAF by Mostafa Abd El-aty)

In its second edition, or what its organisers called its first official edition, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) provided Cairo with much needed artistic diversity, giving several local and international artists the opportunity to show their work to large audiences from 4 to 28 April.

Unlike the 2012 edition of the festival, which took place for two and a half weeks of condensed programming, this year's edition went on for a month, allowing audiences to comfortably integrate its activities into their daily lives, and with most events taking place on the weekend.

Programme highlights

At this year's D-CAF, artistic elements were impressive to say the least. It presented a well-curated and thought-out series of performances, including both local and international artists. The hard work and thought put into the programming is reflected in the high quality of performances, which took place across downtown Cairo for the entire month.

The performing arts category brought some of the most important performances that take place in festivals in Europe to Cairo, such as 'The Great War' by Hotel Modern and 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' by Iran's Nassim Soleimanpour. It also brought one of the most prominent choreographersTomeo Verges, presenting three impressive works including 'Anatomia Publica' on the opening night and 'Traffic' in collaboration with Egyptian dancers, displayed in a shop window on Mahmoud Bassiouny Street.

The film schedule featured two categories focused on Egypt's contemporary times: West African films and films on peaceful movements and civil disobedience. Hassan Khan also presented his mobile-shot film 'Blind Ambition', which inspired a workshop as part of the Edutainment section of the programme on making films using mobile phone.

It was a shame that Selma El-Tarzi's much anticipated documentary 'Underground/On the Surface' on shaabi mahraganat music icons Okka and Ortega was not shown at the end.

Bringing an element of art education was also an innovative addition to the festival, in which several workshops took place including the mobile-film workshop and a contemporary dance workshop. The results of both were shown on the closing night of D-CAF in Falaki Theatre.

Also, the festival hosted the launch of PREformance, an online toolkit for performing artists wishing to document their work and engage in discourse on the issue.

In its turn, the visual arts segment brought a new kind of visual arts to Cairo. Curated by Medrar for Contemporary Art, the programme focused on interactive arts where the audience is part of making the artwork in a series of exhibitions and public space art projects. 

The 'InterLAB: Artificial Emotional Intelligence' exhibition saw a large turnout on the opening night, but was emptier during the rest of the festival. Perhaps it would have been more practical to have the exhibition open for a shorter period of time, as the artwork is highly dependent on interactivity within each space hosting it and between the two spaces: Medrar and Hotel Viennoise.

The 'Augmented Airspace' project by Dia Hamed and Lot Amoros (Spain) was interesting, where a small helicopter would fly around the neighbourhood and the audience is invited to look at the live feed of the camera attached to it which is then changed by the artists. However, the project did not draw much of an audience, as it was hosted inside a walled garage into which people seldom enter, with almost no posters or banners indicating its existence.

The rest of the visual arts attracted considerable audience attention and engagement, such as Ganzeer and Yasmine Elayat's 'Face the Vetrine', German group VR/Urban's 'SMSlingshot'which challenges advertising by reclaiming public space, and French/Tunisian Marion and Ghazi's shadow theatre performance, which drew questions about freedom and its limits.

Perhaps the weakest element of this year's D-CAF was the music segment, curated by Mahmoud Refaat of 100Copies Music.

The programme presented an incredible final performance in the re-opened Qasr El-Nil theatre by Egyptian Dina El-Wedidi and Tunsian Emel Mathlouthi, both considered young voices of their respective revolutions and who mix folklore with modern sounds such as rock and electro music.

However, the rest of the events, even though interesting for people who enjoy the electro, hip-hop and dubstep music genre, were more limited. They aimed at presenting an array of music that is a product of street culture. No doubt, these kinds of performances are important in terms of their curated value, but having them in Shahrazade – which is in essence a night club – and very late at night played a role in excluding many would-be spectators.

It would have been interesting to have a larger variety of music performances in a more diverse set of spaces and times. Especially bearing in mind that music is one of the most sought-after genres of contemporary art in Egypt, and could have played a role in attracting more audiences to the rest of the programme.

Art in public space

The festival had a strong focus on bringing arts to the streets, to reclaim public space in a different way through its Urban Visions programme. This notion has been done several times by artists over the past two years in Egypt since the revolution, through projects such as 'El-Fan Midan' and Mahatat's 'Shaware'na' project, to name a few. However, D-CAF brought contemporary dance to Downtown's streets.

An interesting element of this year's festival was taking some performances to Assiut and Badrashein in Giza, two areas that seldom see this kind of art. Even though there were some issues mentioned in the activities outside of Cairo, El-Attar believes it was an important learning experience for him and his team, and will enable them to have a successful endeavour in next year's edition.

Art in public space is vital for Egypt at the moment, to help more people get exposed to Cairo's vibrant art scene and invite people to be part of the process of independent arts, to which they are seldom exposed due to the media's focus on mainstream art. It is also a tool to reclaim ownership of the streets from the government, which is as essential as protesting.

Most passersby enjoyed the performances, while others found them inconvenient. This was noticed in front of the Egyptian Stock Exchange, on the second day of the festival during preparations for performances by Hacker Crew (Egypt), Sonic (Egypt), Line Engravers and 100Hands (The Netherlands). Although the event was well attended, it caused some annoyance among passersby.

Also, on the SMSlingshot's second day, the owners of the local café that was hosting it had issues with them taking up customer space. However, the organisers swiftly dealt with the issue, ensuring the continuation of the project for several more days.

Marketing & communications

While the programme brought innovative and interesting performances to the audience and local artists alike, one would have wished to see a bigger turnout for many of the events besides the usual art-savvy crowd.

Ahmed El-Attar, the festival's director, told Ahram Online that marketing was an issue that he, along with the organisers, felt could be improved for the coming edition of D-CAF.

Marketing for the festival started quite late; posters could not be seen saturating Downtown Cairo until the first week of the festival, which was due to organisational problems and late confirmations from donors, according to El-Attar.

"We will start our fundraising activities early next year, to ensure that we have the necessary budget to hire an effective marketing team," he stated.

Nevertheless, D-CAF had an active, and beautifully designed, press office on Hoda Shaarawy Street. The press team had effective outreach to local and international media and supported media coverage with a well-structured website and active blog.

However, it is important for festival organisers to evaluate who the festival was targeting. D-CAF publications and flyers were available in both English and Arabic. However, the blog was entirely run in English, and the artists' information on the website was only available in English. Also, the social media campaign was mostly in English.

If the festival is targeting locals, who are not part of independent art circles, to get them engaged with its performances and be exposed to new kinds of art outside their comfort zone, then communicating to festival goers predominantly in Arabic is vital.

This issue also appeared in some of the subtitling. 'The Great War' by Hotel Modern, one of the most impressive performances this year, had a problem with subtitles, some of which did not appear to the audience. Also, French play 'Le Prince Sequestre' had an issue with subtitling for the first minutes on its opening night.

All in all, however, this year's edition of D-CAF was mostly successful, and a venture such as this is much needed in Egypt's contemporary art scene. One would hope that organisers increase their efforts in marketing the festival locally and ensuring a programme that will attract an even more diverse audience for the 2014 edition.

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