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From “Back” to Forth: Finding Other Sides to Our Stories

Creative Impact Lab Cairo (2021) converged an interdisciplinary group of 18 Egypt-based visual artists, sound artists, performance artists, film and media artists, designers, writers, and scholars to address the issue of women’s empowerment in Egypt. On what is hopefully the tail end of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the lab was conducted entirely virtually. Despite our distance, I’ve found it truly remarkable how our group forged an intimate and intensive pocket of time together. I’m amazed by how much ground we covered in just a few short weeks. 

 

Screenshot of a video. There is a man and woman side-by-side from the shoulders up. Their faces have a ceramic, haunting quality.
Body Talk by Dina Jereidini & Zeina Raafat (2021). Image courtesy of the artists.

 

During the first half of the lab, I had the privilege of leading this group in a series of activities spanning five workshop days. Riffing on the theme of “backups” which I introduced in an artist talk that kicked off the lab, our first four workshop days were aimed at generating content to seed a community media library shared by the group and were organized around four themes. Day by day, our themes were “Time machine backups” (including the concept of “forking” in open source software development and the metaphor of “backstops” in a time capsule free write); “Backpacks” (including an introduction to object-oriented feminist analysis and collectively live-translating Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”); “Backchannels” (delving directly into the question of what can and can’t be “said” about women’s empowerment and including discussions of secret messages and security protocols for communication); and “Back-to-back media” (including considering the affordances of B-sides and multiple-sided media). Our activities spanned sharing a Zoom dinner, filling and swapping bags, open discussion forums, whiteboard brainstorm sessions, silent COLO sessions, active listening, meditative gift giving, guided free writes, and peer-to-peer skillshares. 

 

GIF of assorted illustrations of kitchen and food items with Arabic labels next to each of them.
Flour and Fury: How to Make an Egyptian Feminist by Basma Ahmed & Mariam Ibrahim (2021). Image courtesy of the artists.

Screenshot of two side-by-side videos. The one on the left shows hands pouring soil into a pot with a small tree in it. The one on the right shows alt text of the video on the left using white text on a black background.

Two of the activities that made the biggest impression on me were the collaborative real-time translation of Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” and our group discussion “Broadcasts and Backchannels” about what can and can’t be said about women’s empowerment in Egypt. These exercises were extremely different in form and content; yet both revealed to me the formidable collective intelligence that was arising out of this group, and that these exercises were helping to hone. Both exercises highlighted for me the necessity of addressing the social issues at the heart of our lab as fundamentally multifaceted, and underscored the significance of a polyvocal approach to speaking to these issues as such in order to do justice to the complex intersectional realities of Egyptian cultural experience. For every argument raised, there is another side to consider. And for every strong statement voiced righteously, there is another—perhaps softer—voice simultaneously yearning to be heard.Screenshot of two side-by-side videos. The one on the left shows hands pouring soil into a pot with a small tree in it. The one on the right shows alt text of the video on the left using white text on a black background.

 

Screenshot of a selfie video of a man with an AR filter of aviator sunglasses and a beard. Closed captioning reads in both Arabic and English, "or any other man in your family will set you straight."
Talk as if you are A.R. by Fatma El Zahraa & Habiba Afifi (2021). Image courtesy of the artists.

 

After opening our time capsules at the end of our fourth workshop day, groups started to form around project ideas. On our fifth workshop day, each project was proposed before two guest critics, Elham Khattab of Out of the Circle, and Maya Hilbert of New Media Artspace at Baruch College. With feedback from Elham and Maya, the participants then launched into an intensive 12-day development period during which they created new media art works-in-progress while I curated the proposed works in a virtual exhibition. Drawing on the notion of multi-sidedness, and inspired by our “Back-to-back media” day, I titled the exhibition “Recto & Verso,” referencing a term from book design that refers to the front and back sides of a page. 

 

Screenshot from an animation showing abstracted sibhas or prayer beads in green, blue, and red against a dark green background.
The Fallacy of 33 Terms by Rawan Abbas, Doha Aboelezz, Yara Mekawei (2021). Image courtesy of the artists.

 

The works-in-progress that emerged speak powerfully to this notion. I’ve been floored by the eloquence and intensity of the work that was created during this short time. I invite everyone to visit the virtual exhibition at cil.medrar.org. Like me, I’m sure you will be excited to think about how the projects that were fomented during the lab will soon be taking new shapes and moving forth—from the lab into the world. 

 

Screenshot of two side-by-side videos. The one on the left shows hands pouring soil into a pot with a small tree in it. The one on the right shows alt text of the video on the left using white text on a black background.
The Gender of the Tree Surgeon by Fatma Heiba (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

 

As I think about leaving the lab behind and moving forth toward the next stages of our journey, I am immensely grateful for the time I’ve spent with this generous group of talented artists. I’m grateful for their hospitality in welcoming me into the fold, for being so forthright and patient in sharing with me in the spirit of cultural exchange, and for trusting me throughout this process. In my view, one of the greatest successes of the lab is that many participants have indicated to me that they felt supported in this process. Thinking toward the future, I hope the lab will live on in these discoveries of forms of mutual support, ongoing artistic collaborations, and lasting community.

 

Feature image credit: Al-Dad by Sara El-Barkouky, Esraa Elfeky, Youssef Abdelmaged, Amany Adel, Ramah Aleryan, Ahmad Aiuby (2021). Image courtesy of the artists.

For over two decades, my interventions in contemporary technoculture have involved opening “black boxes” that proliferate in and around computer culture and challenging cultural assumptions about who participates with emerging technologies. The intersections of gender, race, class, and labor in digital culture (and their contradictions!) are the main subject matter of my work. Likewise, the perspective I bring when I use or critique technoculture and its objects is informed by my own intersectional position as a woman, a multiracial person of color, an artist, a writer, a curator, an educator, and—as this cultural exchange highlights—an American. I am always looking for ways to unpack the realities and identities we take for granted, and to invent and explore alternatives. I approach this process through feminist practices like camaraderie, care, solidarity, sharing, attentive listening, and proactive allyship. 

In this spirit, Creative Impact Lab Cairo will foster conversations and dialogue. I am looking forward to learning about women’s empowerment in an Egyptian context. My learning has already begun. With the insightful and indefatigable Rodeina Fouad, I have just completed the humbling experience of reviewing applications and portfolios from 105 applicants. Grueling as this process was, I’m grateful for the exposure to so many diverse viewpoints and some truly amazing work by Egyptian artists! 

During the first part of the exchange, I will share ways I work across art and theory. In particular, we’ll be putting theory into practice: By approaching technologies as objects, we’ll apply theories my collaborators and I developed in Object-Oriented Feminism (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). At the same time, we’ll be putting practice into theory: I’ll offer my own practice—specifically, my recent solo exhibition Backups (Mazmanian Gallery, 2019)—as a starting place to reverse-engineer principles of women’s empowerment via digital art. Drawing on Backups, we’ll use touchstones like backing up (as time travel or as forking in tech R&D), backups (as digital archives or feminist comrades), backpacks (as crucibles for women’s narratives and counter histories à la Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” 1986), and backchannels (as secure communication protocols for fostering women’s empowerment and sharing women’s stories). Participants will be invited to explore and develop these in their own projects during the second part of the exchange.

While spinning off Backups and various formations of “backs,” I couldn’t help but think of the canonical American feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, now in its fourth printing (edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, SUNY Press, 2015). Having managed to locate a copy at a local bookstore, I collected a bag bearing my name in pink magic marker from curbside pick-up and opened it still in the car. The first word on the first page of “Catching Fire,” Cherríe Moraga’s preface to the Fourth Edition, made me catch my breath: “Egypt.” Recalling the excitement that she felt watching news reports about the actions at Tahrir Square, Moraga situates feminist revolution as a shared experience of solidarity in-common. She writes, “To view the world today through a feminist of color lens shatters all barriers of state-imposed nationality,” (Moraga, xvi). I take this as a fortuitous omen and am full of anticipation for the work we will do together in the coming weeks.

Image credit: Curbside pick-up of This Bridge Called My Back (left) and a positive omen in the preface to the Fourth Edition (right). Photos by Katherine Behar.

Open house for “Lima 2100: Collective Resilience through Adaptive Urbanism” in the virtual Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC Lima) gallery, created and curated by Gabriel Kaprielian exhibiting work of American Arts Incubator — Peru artists (2020).

It’s been a little over a month since the American Arts Incubator — Peru (AAI Peru) program was completed. Reflecting back on the month-long exchange, the global pandemic and virtual format did not dampen the enthusiasm and brilliance of the participating artists. Instead, it challenged us to adapt and respond to the moment, framed by the past, while projecting onto the future. Meaningful connections were made, ideas and knowledge were shared, and amazing new artwork was created. By all accounts, the program was a huge success! Thanks to the dedication of many wonderful people that made this possible.

“Psycho-geographic Mapping of Lima,” by AAI Peru artists (2020).

I led four workshops that introduced technology platforms, theoretical frameworks, encouraged discussion, and led to short exercises applying these tools with artists' ideas. Workshop 1 involved a collective “Psycho-geographic Mapping” of Lima using a virtual whiteboard canvas. In Workshop 2, artists created “Postcards from the Future” that showcased speculative visions of Lima in the year 2100. Workshop 3 introduced tools for digital 3D modeling to create a collaborative “Monument to the Pandemic.” Workshop 4 demonstrated the use of augmented and virtual reality to visualize the artists' work.

“Lima 2100: Postcards from the Future,” by AAI Peru artists (2020).

There were two guest speaker panels that introduced further discussion on the social challenge of urban development in Lima, focusing on the themes of climate change, social equity, and urban health. The first panel was centered around public space and included Dr. Patricia Kim (Monument Lab), Dr. Ghigo DiTommaso (Gehl Architects), and Lucía Nogales (Ocupa tu Calle). The second panel focused on socially-responsive artwork and included Nicolas Gomez Echeverri (MAC Lima), Natalija Boljsakov (UTEC), Ferran Gisbert (UTEC), and Kiko Mayorga (UTEC).

“Monument to the Pandemic,” augmented reality digital models by AAI Peru artists (2020).

For the last ten days of the program, each artist created new artwork responding to the theme, “Lima 2100 – Collective Resilience through Adaptive Urbanism.” These works took the form of 2D collage, audio and video, and digital 3D forms. I was amazed by the creativity and thoughtfulness of each project and the passion each artist demonstrated in developing their work in such a short amount of time.

Artists presented their artworks and concepts to a guest panel where they received outside feedback. The final exhibition was originally planned to take place in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC Lima). Instead, we created a virtual reality gallery in Mozilla Hubs of MAC Lima with a curated exhibition of each artist’s work. This was the first time we were able to gather in the same "room," walking around and chatting, viewing the artwork as a collective project.

Virtual gallery open house screenshot with artwork by Lucero Jacobo Guerrero and Cristina Ocampo Acuña (2020).

I want to give a big thank you to all of the participating artists, our partners in Lima including UTEC, MAC Lima, and the U.S. Embassy, as well as our guest speakers and panelists. This program has introduced new ideas and understanding in my creative practice and expanded my ecosystem of collaborators. I am grateful for the opportunity to have taken part in AAI Peru.

Since the tragic killing of George Floyd on May 25, our staff have been in deep listening mode — thinking and discussing internally how to most effectively act in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives in the pursuit of racial justice.

We continue to mourn the incessant violence enacted by police on the unarmed bodies of black citizens such as Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and so many more. As our collective resistance grows, we are witness to the tactics of intimidation, escalation, and excessive force used by agents of the state against protesters. The broader systemic failure of these publicly funded agencies, allegedly tasked to serve and protect, is being laid bare.

We affirm that there will be no justice in this country until we acknowledge that all black lives matter and we begin to reshape our institutions in support of that belief. The scope of policing must be reduced, while the reach of social services, health care, education, and cultural activities must grow. The coming reinvestment in communities will require a critical anti-racist approach, if we are to move together towards justice.

As a nonprofit organization at the intersection of art, science, and technology, we acknowledge that the nonprofit industrial complex, the arts sector, the production of scientific knowledge, and the development of technological innovation are all embedded within oppressive systems that have perpetuated white supremacy. As an historically white-led institution, we carry a legacy of privilege that must be examined, unpacked, and reorganized in order to move forward in service of equity and justice. Working with media artists who are experimenting with emerging technologies and new tools, our work is fraught with technological fetishism and obsession with novelty. With our gaze oriented towards the future, we can either blindly pursue creative innovation in service of inequitable resource accumulation, or we can choose to apply our creativity to reimagine a more just, inclusive world. Our call to action is clear.

We have begun a strategic planning process that will provide a framework for change in our organization, taking into account contemporary conditions: the growing momentum of the movement for racial equity in our home communities and the localization of activity due to the pandemic. As we embark on this work, we commit to the following actions:

Internal Actions

  • Address anti-blackness within our organization through learning about and implementing anti-oppression principles in board recruitment, hiring, training, program design, partnerships, curation, artist selection, and outreach.
  • Review the historical values of our organization and explicitly articulate our contemporary values, especially those rooted in equity, to guide future strategy.
  • Fund staff to participate in professional development around equity.

External Actions

  • Assess the needs of our communities to the best of our capacity through surveys and stakeholder discussions, specifically seeking feedback from artists and communities of color.
  • Bring the perspective and practices of our international work home with the development of local programming and partnerships.
  • Produce programming that builds skills, wellness, and community among artists engaged in movement work.
  • Leverage our resources and provide a platform for the creative, critical voices of change who are helping us to reimagine a just future.

As members of our community, we rely on your perspective and collective wisdom to guide us in our work. We invite your comments and reflections on the work we have done and the proposed actions above. Please be in touch and share your thoughts so that we may refine our efforts.

In solidarity,

Team ZERO1

All AAI Brazil projects can be experienced at www.aaibrazil.com

The entirety of this experience, from beginning to end, is something I will cherish and continue to be inspired by as I go forward in my art practice. From the relationships forged on the ground to my amazement of the vision and voices of the participants, and for our entire team’s resilience and creative pivoting in response to the pandemic, I am forever grateful.

Image by Santiago X (2020).

When I arrived in Belo Horizonte, there was a charge in the air. It was something that was hard to pin down in the moment; it felt like a fire inside. After talking with people, learning their stories and their struggles, as well as their similarities to people I knew back home, the urgency to amplify the humanity in our shared experience burnt in me like a beacon. Whatever was to be created in this short time we had together had to transcend convention, and inject a much-needed narrative into the often cold landscape of art and technology — breathing life into it.

Image by João Henrique Motta de Miranda (2020).

There were a lot of meaningful exchanges and experiences along this journey, but the ones that really stood out to me were the events that inspired us to create portals for healing — and to witness the participants embrace and overcome the challenges of creating team-based virtual experiences while in physical isolation. 

Image by Santiago X (2020).

Upon my arrival in Belo Horizonte, Francisca of our host partner JA.CA, took me to the opening of a new exhibition entitled "VAIVÉM," which showcased the work of Indigenous Brazilian artists and the narrative of the hammock.

There, I met an Indigenous artist and healer named, Iba, who sang traditional healing songs and linked those songs to the murals he had painted on the walls. I talked with him in my native language and he talked in his; we were laughing at the similarities in our creation stories and symbologies, and he told me his work was entirely about building gateways for healing, or portals. We laughed again, because that is exactly what my practice was/is and what I wanted to create during the incubator.

Image by Santiago X (2020).

Needless to say, the participants took every tool and every opportunity that was presented to them to tell their stories, and they delivered. Watching their rapid progression from learning 3D scanning, projection mapping, augmented reality, and finally virtual reality, was simply incredible.

The teams' abilities to seamlessly incorporate these tools into a very human experience on a completely unfamiliar platform was beyond anything I could have expected. When it was all said and done, we augmented a new, uncharted digital landscape with reality and humanity. Life was breathed into each project — life that will outlive our own.

 

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