NEARLY TWO YEARS have passed since the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set the Arab world on fire. After losing the only means he had left to make a living—a vegetable cart and a set of scales—and then, though accounts vary, getting smacked in the face and spat on by a cop, Bouazizi committed an act of desperation so extreme it sparked demonstrations across the region, to the extent that most of the cities looped around the Mediterranean and down through the Gulf have smoldered at one point or another in the past twenty-two months.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation made Tunisia center stage of the so-called Arab Spring—a series of upheavals that will probably, eventually, need measuring in decades instead of seasons—and the country has since become a volatile laboratory for risky yet hopeful experiments in reconciling democracy, religion, economic development, and, oh yes, the disruptive potential of contemporary art in public space. Tunisia is so far the only site in the unfolding drama where contemporary art has become central, at times violently so, to ongoing debates about how to live, get along, and be governed.
When the third edition of Dream City, a biennial festival of performance and public art, opened in Tunis the Wednesday before last, all of the organizers and participating artists were still reeling over the recent YouTube riots. (You know the ones.) An emergency law had been revived and imposed to ban demonstrations. And no one had forgotten that over the summer, in the posh northern suburb of Marsa, religious fanatics had shut down an art fair, attacked a gallery, destroyed artworks in an exhibition deemed offensive to Islam, and threatened to spill the blood of the artists involved. It seemed an insane time to thread forty-five artworks—most of them daring and none of them merely decorative—into the urban fabric of the medina, the tangled medieval souk at the heart of the capital.
But neither Selma Ouissi nor her brother Sofiane, the striking young dancers who direct the event, would be deterred. “Since we started in 2007, Dream City has been impossible to stop,” said Selma. “The reaction of artists and audiences, everyone, was overwhelming.”
“The first edition came at a point when Tunisian artists were suffocating,” added Sofiane. With the festival, “they found an opening. Dream City offered them a space to meet and end their isolation.”
“People thought we were crazy to do things in public space,” said Selma. “At the time, it was forbidden by law for more than three people to be together in public at the same time. But we work on political conditions, whatever they may be. If an artwork happens in public space, it’s a political action, whether we like it or not. In 2007, the city needed this breakthrough. It was suffocating. It was impossible.”
The Ouissis didn’t set out to create a biennial. Dream City was the name they gave to a project called “Unclassified: Tunis,” which they organized for the fifth edition of Meeting Points, a visual and performing arts festival, which, every few years, rolls across a handful of Arab cities (and increasingly, European cities with sponsoring institutions). In 2007, the Belgian curator Frie Leysen assembled the most ambitious Meeting Points to date. (The sixth edition, organized by Okwui Enwezor in 2011, had to be scaled back amid the waves of revolution and counterrevolution in the region.) Leysen commissioned young artists in six cities to curate local exhibitions. While all of the other works traveled (including performances by Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué, and the late Amal Kenawy), the “Unclassified” shows remained rooted in place. In 2010, Selma and Sofiane decided, as an experiment, to run Dream City again. They even got Trisha Brown to participate. In Tunis, Meeting Points became one festival that spawned another.
I arrived on Thursday, the day Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist and once-exiled dissident who is now Tunisia’s interim president (and whose left-leaning secular party is in coalition with the moderate Islamist movement, Ennahda), published an editorial in the New York Times, arguing, among other things, that extremists had ridden into the political system on the coattails of the revolution, and that despite the recent mob violence against American interests, the region’s broader uprisings were neither for nor against the West but “simply not about the West.”
I was quickly deposited at a Dream City reception, held in the lush courtyard of a grand old house, by a young classics professor who gamely answered my rapid-fire questions about life before and after Ben Ali’s abdication. This year, the festival tackled a predictable if poorly translated theme—“artists facing freedom”—and followed the links among artists across Africa and Asia (and in that sense, Marzouki was right). The reception was so deep in the medina that not one but three young men insisted on walking me out of the souk, and perhaps for my benefit, they laughed out loud at every robed and bearded Salafist who passed us by (and funnily enough, the Salafists laughed back).
The next morning, before diving back into the labyrinth with a color-coded map, a Dream City wristband, and a press badge (so much for going incognito), I caught a ride to a café in Sidi Bou Said, a suburb too beautiful to be believed—all white houses with blue trim and bursts of hot pink bougainvillea framing views of the Mediterranean shimmering like improbable aquamarine jewel. On the way, we took detour after detour. All of the roads around the American embassy were closed. Demonstrations had been called for after Friday prayers, but nothing major materialized in Tunis, and throughout my stay, the biggest threat to my person was nicking a shin on the concertina wire coiled around foreign embassies and government ministries.
At the café, I found Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the Brussels-based Egyptian curator and de facto godfather of Dream City. Fetouh started Meeting Points a decade ago, directs the Young Arab Theatre Fund, and is currently at work on the next edition of the Home Works Forum in Beirut. With Christophe Slagmuylder, director of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Belgium, I got Fetouh’s take on the history of Dream City thus far. “It wasn’t just the political situation that was suffocating when they started,” he said. “The artistic landscape was totally closed, with the same artists always in the same museums, the same theaters, the same festivals. Something had to happen from inside the art scene. It was a real breakthrough.”
So what now, after the revolution and the end of Ben Ali’s regime? For answers, we headed to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where much of the revolution occurred, and Bab Bhar, one of the ancient gates into the medina, which was crammed with riot police looking lost and bored. We caught up with Raeda Saadeh, the Palestinian artist who had done a performance the day before involving a dress like that of a whirling dervish but with sixty meters of fabric splayed around her and gradually covered with wishes written on tiny bits of paper thrown for good luck from the crowd. Throughout the day, gangs of young girls, all Dream City devotees, asked to have their picture taken with her.
We tumbled into a shuttered storefront, where Souad Ben Slimane, a journalist and actress, was performing Fin de Série, about the trials and tribulations of a prostitute entering middle age. We packed into a coffee shop to watch video documentation of Mohamed Allem’s Yao-Ming Tunis, a mostly failed attempt to paste monochromatic posters of the Yao Ming meme throughout the medina. (None of them lasted very long before being scribbled over—as in, “F##K EUROPE, I ♥ TOUNESS”—or torn down.) And we nearly got caught up in the dancer and choreographer Imen Smaoui’s mesmerizing Électron Libre, which she describes as a reenchantment of the city. Two musicians attract an audience and then Smaoui picks through its members to find a dance partner—or, more accurately, to engage a total stranger in a highly charged emotional tussle under the saddest of concrete planted trees.
There was no one on the level of Trisha Brown this year, but Malek Sebaï, a contemporary dancer classically trained in ballet, choreographed a strange and wondrous marriage between minimalism and older, more popular forms of Arabic dance in a piece called Khira w Roshdi. Basim Magdy’s video My Father Looks for an Honest City was beautifully installed in a villa; Hassan Khan’s Blind Ambition less so in a culture club named for Tahar Haddad, an early-twentieth-century feminist. We searched in vain for a peripatetic performance by the Beninese artist Tobi Ayedadjou. But we did find the Algerian journalist and playwright Mustapha Benfodil, reading out loud in a library and performing a piece about censorship that had him hunched over a pile of banned books. “I am sorry for the books,” he said. “It’s as if they are crying. But I won’t light them,” he added, snapping his thumb. “They won’t burn.”
As the day wore on, it become harder and harder to distinguish works for the festival from the everyday drama of Tunisian street life. By evening, I thought nothing of an actor in a lab coat pushing a hospital gurney topped with cactus fruit through the narrow alleyways, or a dozen university students running around the medina dressed in cardboard boxes with face paint and Zoro masks. Dream City or not? Did it matter? And yet all of this was tinged with a bit of tragedy, with the sense that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was nothing if not theatrical, an unparalleled public performance.
On Saturday morning I met Selma and Sofiane for breakfast and found them in a reflective mood. “The danger now,” said Selma, “is that different people are trying to instrumentalize art to say it’s about this or that secular or Salafist position. The society has become so divided.” Political censorship had given way a kind of moral or social censorship, and in the meantime, government ministers were passing by, telling the Ouissis they were eager for Dream City’s audiences. “When we decided to go down to the street,” said Sofiane, “it was because of the desire we had as dancers and choreographers without a space to experiment to reclaim public space for citizenship. The street belongs to the people. Our art is to create space in the city.”