Cairotronica: Platform for media artists to ruminate on digital technology's impact on life

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 4 May 2021

Brain child of Haytham Nawar, this year's Cairotronica was themed 'Data Fiction' and took place across two venues: Factory space and Tahrir Cultural Centre (26 April - 1 May)

Planet City
Planet City by Liam Young (Australia/Italy). Tahrir Cultural Centre. (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

“Method for exploration of social networks to derive location of employees. Targeting content to network enabled devices based upon stored profiles. System and method for inferring social influence networks from transitional data. Method of handling digital contents in a social network. Obtaining social relationship type of network subjects.” 

Each of these statements is the name of a patent accompanied by a technological drawing. Presented side by side, the patents fill the walls of a side room of the Factory space in Cairo. Titled “Sociality”, this award-winning project was created by Paolo Cirio (Italy), an artist who examined over 20 thousand socially informative technology documents in order to shed light on contemporary mechanisms of social control.

Cirio’s work strikes us with countless complex technological systems created in order to foster addiction, opinion formation, deceptions, and profiling. This is the world we live in; this is the reality of bigotry and deceit imposed upon societies through the technological tools which, while aiming to support our lives, also deprive us of many freedoms and use our very existence against us.

“Sociality” has been exhibited across Europe, Asia, Canada and US, and made its entry to Egypt and the region during the third round of  the media art festival Cairotronica (26 April-1 May), themed Data Fiction. The festival’s first round took place in 2016 under a theme ‘Only Connect’, followed by its 2018 edition titled ‘A Future of Possibilities’. Dedicated to its continuity and expansion of media art in Cairo, Egypt and the region, Cairotronica’s third round was planned for 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While “Sociality” unveils the vehicles of social control and intellectual property exploitation, pointing up surveillance and social manipulation, the topic studied by Cirio is but one in a large assortment of conceptual contributions by over 45 artists from 22 countries displaying exhibitions and installations at the Factory space and the Tahrir Cultural Centre (TCC).

Sociality by Paolo Cirio (Italy). Factory Space. (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

Given the large hall of the Factory space, the venue turned to a large platform gathering the many media artists whose voices were expressed through installations, video and sound works, computer screens, projections and other tools communicating data and its role in our postmodern world.

For its part, the Tahrir Cultural Centre (operating under the American University) created more intimate spaces across its numerous galleries, where the works provided a direct dialogue with attendees.

One of the remarkable projects was Morphecore by a Japanese artist, programmer, designer, DJ, VJ, and composer Daito Manabe. In it, the short lecture-performance analyses the relation between brain and the body, where the digital technology allowed the artist to reconstruct body movement by decoding information in the brain and sending back impulses to the computer-designed cloned dancer, yet this time all external factors such as gravity or physical limitations are removed from the equation. The viewer sees the cloned dancer unrestrained, moving in weightlessness (Zero Gravity) while freely using his limbs that bend in all directions. 

Another hall of TCC captivated our attention with work by internationally renowned speculative architect and director Liam Young (Austria/USA). His film Planet City showcases an imaginary city inhabited by the entire population of earth following centuries of colonisation, globalisation and the neverending depletion of resources. With the city consisting of a series of tall buildings or rather prisons of the population that we do not see, this utopian reality is encapsulated in a critical architecture of tomorrow that is more terrifying and weighty than it is hopeful. What is left is to create one’s own reality, a dream of the future, one that Young leaves to be judged by the Planet City’s viewer. 

Young was also among the artists who held an online live talk presenting his work and philosophy, pointing to the future which is closer than we think and of which we should take charge against dim socio-political and economic histories.

Liam Young
Liam Young (Australia/USA) during an online discussion at the Tahrir Cultural Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

With all artist talks and online discussions taking place at TCC, we could be close to names such as Paolo Cirio, who spoke about Economies of Human Behavior in relation to his work at the Factory space; Lauren Lee McCarthy, an LA-based artist also interested in examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living; among other speakers, alongside Ars Electronica (an Austrian cultural, educational and scientific institute active in the field of new media art), animation film screenings and a performance by Quantum Noize. 

It is not possible to go deeper into all the creative propositions hosted by both venues. Suffice to say that in the midst of such an overwhelming amount of data, the subjects that came to the surface at both the Factory space and TCC were all drawn from our recent history combined with technological advancement.

Issues tackled themes such as extremism and violence (It’s All In My Head by Etinosa Yvonne, Nigeria), technological waste (Core Dump by Francois Knoetze, South Africa) and digital waste (Lucidum by Haifa Ouerfelli, Tunisia), gene editing (Breeding the Super Generation by Lana Kurdi, Syria/Egypt), propaganda using modern social media platforms (Fake News by Jeroen van Loon, The Netherlands), and dozens other audio and/or visual installations. This technological realm also unveils the emotional rewiring of humans (Swiping Compressed Filtered Love by Marie-Eve Levasseur, Canada/Germany), body modification (Muscle Memory by Miriam Coretta Schulte and Svenja Simone Schulte, Germany/Switzerland) and memory alteration (No Memory Available by Mariem Hidri, Tunisia). 

Cairotronica is the brainchild of Haytham Nawar, its founding director, and also one its curatorial team members, as well as the Chairman of the Department of Arts at the American University in Cairo.  The team also includes Ghalia Elsrakbi (co-founder and artistic director), Nada Bakr (managing director) and Ahmed Al-Laithy (in charge of partnerships and strategies).

Morphecore by Daito Manabe (Japan). Tahrir Cultural Centre. (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

“I come from a fine art background and I have always been interested in experimentation and fascinated by media and technology. As a young person I could see that there are no platforms where creators working in media art could exhibit their work,” Nawar says, explaining how he recognised the need for platforms that would showcase and support the media artists in Egypt and the region, and their work.

Combining art with digital technology, Cairotronica is an extremely rare opportunity to present media art in many forms to Egyptian audiences. The meanings it carries and its impact go far beyond just an exhibition, installations or a few art talks. Cairotronica serves as a fundamental space for mediation and negotiation between postmodern society, the scientific data flow system and technologically developed reality. As such, the festival is a platform for contemporary artists to showcase all aspects of tactical media while redefining and publicly sharing creative views on advanced technological knowledge. As Nawar explains the theme Data Fiction is related to everything that surrounds us: encoding, programming, fake news, leaking data, data used and manipulated by countries in politics, the economy, etc.

To artists, Cairotronica is an opportunity for the region to present and exchange ideas, to shed light on their work and thoughts; for the audience it is an invitation to contemplate the intangible tangibility of digital technology, in order to gain a bird’s eye view of the whole technological web that dominates our lives: from the artificial intelligence, interfaces, virtual worlds, to data manipulation, hacktivism and the many biases that surround us. 

With many topics on the table, Cairotronica is undeniably an invitation to reassess our technologically stimulated addictions, perceptions and priorities placed on us by new technologies and the postmodern expectations of social development. For the region we live in, where media art does not receive sufficient representation, the festival brings us closer to the thoughts shared by Egyptian, regional and international artists who today, more than ever before, shed a critical light on technology. 

Core Dump
Core Dump by Francois Knoetze (South Africa). Factory space. (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

It is interesting to notice that while the most recent technological advances are the daily bread of a young generation immersed in hundreds of applications and tech gadgets, at the same time they are critical of the life they live. It is this generation represented by many of Cairotronica’s media artists who already question the impact that technology they abide by (they know no other life) has on their lives and futures.

“It is a very critical generation. They are very brave and do not hide their observations. Technology gives them tools to dig deeper. A lot of works presented in the Cairotronica show their criticism of societies, regimes, systems, etc.  Technology helps artists to openly formulate their concerns. This is a very healthy phenomenon,” Nawar comments. 

In every round, Cairotronica explores different venues such as halls belonging to the Ministry of Culture, Zawya art house cinema, Cimateque, in addition to collaborating with the universities where some of the workshops were held. For the third round Nawar decided to target Downtown Cairo and its uniquely diverse community.

“We always cooperate with many institutions. This creates important dynamics as we bring together academics with practitioners, technicians with artists, etc. With the entry of the festival to the Factory space and TCC this year, a new scope of audiences is addressed,” Nawar clarifies, adding that “one of the strategies of Cairotronica is to move to Downtown for better accessibility to many social circles inhabiting the area.”

He points to the Factory space that can attract local crowds and everyday people wandering around the area. That is not the case with the TCC, which is trying to break free of the historical boundaries capitalising on an elitist community.

Artist Talk
A talk at Tahrir Cultural Centre featuring archaeologist Monica Hanna and Morehshin Allahyari whose work was on display at the Factory space (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

“With TCC, the crowd starts changing and we could see it with people attending this year’s Cairotronica. We had many returning attendees; however there has also been a large number of new faces, many just curious to visit the location. It is important not to forget that the TCC premises create an amazing cultural and historical background for presenting art.”

A few visits on social media reveal that Cairotronica’s installations were promoted by the young generation using many of the same technological tools (such as cell phones and social media platforms) that the artists talk about in their works. As such the technology discussed by Cairotronica became a tool used by viewers to promote it.

“I was happily surprised to find some documentation posted by the attendees on social media including TikTok,” Nawar notes, speaking about the TikTok users whose followers count in the tens of thousands as they post short videos from the exhibition.

While the festival has folded, this is not where Cairotronica ends. As Nawar explains, Cairotronica is in the process of transitioning into a year-round platform providing ongoing programmes, workshops, residencies, exchange programmes as well as fellowships, among other activities spanning 12 months. Being also on the advisory board of Ars Electronica, Nawar can initiate numerous creative exchanges between local and international artists. As for the festival itself, Nawar chairs the curatorial team in charge of scouting the international scene in order to invite the artists, while the open call aims to give a chance to many other creators to submit their works. 

Many of the upcoming events will continue taking place at the TCC. As the Managing Director of the Tahrir Cultural Centre and Campus, Tarek Atia explains, “We are trying to be a home to some of the most interesting and largest festivals year round, and Cairotronica fits our strategy perfectly. It is probably one of the most cutting-edge festivals in our region and I think it’s a perfect fit. For a week, we witness very sophisticated exhibits, performances, talks, which at the same time are conceptually very accessible.”

The Glass Room
The Glass Room by Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based NGO that exlores and mitigates impact of digital technologies on society. Tahrir Cultural Centre. (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

Atia points to the fact that topics tackled by the artists participating in Cairotronica address everybody’s life and, “because it is presented as an art form, it’s sort of open to interpretation; it is very welcoming.”

Cairotronica is also the perfect way for the Tahrir Cultural Centre to introduce itself to new audiences. “It is not the first time that we have had a tech-oriented art show. This one is really accessible to younger audiences. We had a lot of university students coming. My hope is that those visitors will keep returning to Cairotronica events as well as other events taking place in the venue year-round.”

Atia adds that he finds the whole project extremely interesting on a personal level. “As a director of TCC with a media background, constantly experimenting in my career with digital media and cutting edge technology, I find the event extremely relevant. The questions raised by Cairotronica, I think, everybody needs to be thinking about. It is an exhibition that puts a lot of things into perspective, gets our minds working, and triggers thoughts on many issues.” 

For his part Nawar reveals that the upcoming event will take place shortly after Eid. “The TCC will host some of the post-festival activities including the upcoming Algorithmic Perfumery, on 25 May.”

Created by Frederik Duerink (The Netherlands), this multi-award-winning installation comes in the form of advanced machinery that creates a unique scent made and compounded on-site, based on a questionnaire incorporating the sociological, psychological and cultural inquiry of the participant. “One-of-a-kind perfumes for every human” is yet to attract many audiences eager to walk home with their very own personalised scent.

Cairotronica, Factory space (Photo: Ahmad ElNemr)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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