Remember the Time

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on “Speak Memory” at Townhouse

Left: “Speak Memory” curator Laura Carderera. Right: Artist Osama Dawod of the Townhouse Gallery with Townhouse founder and director William Wells. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

MAYBE MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE still buy sports cars, marry their secretaries, or suffer spectacular nervous breakdowns. But arts initiatives of a certain age? They organize conferences. And so it was that the “Speak Memory” symposium on archival practices commenced at the twelve-year-old Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo last Thursday.

Taking its title from Nabokov’s memoir––which was, incidentally, published in the US as Conclusive Evidence, a name far less serviceable for this particular affair––“Speak Memory” gathered together an eclectic group of artists, curators, and researchers. Whether based in the Far East, the Middle East, or Latin America––all regional constructs that come with the asterisks of the power dynamics that created them––their projects are held together by a thin thread of pseudo-archaeological excavation into past artistic practices that have been neglected, ignored, buried, or hijacked by a confluence of different factors––ranging from the nationalist ideologies of the state to the economic imperatives of the private sector to that old, enduring bogeyman: the art market.

Townhouse started out as a ramshackle gallery in a downtown Cairo alleyway otherwise populated by car mechanics. It has since grown considerably in size, filling several floors of a grand if dilapidated building and a slew of other temporary spaces scattered throughout the city. Over the course of its first decade, Townhouse has not only witnessed but also played a pivotal role in reshaping the local cultural landscape, which has changed utterly since 1998. Back then, Townhouse was more or less the enemy of Egypt’s government-sponsored fine arts sector. Now it is the darling of both the official (state) and unofficial (independent) sides of the Cairene art scene, at a time when both are being cannibalized by the rise of private, for-profit art spaces in between.

Left: New Museum curator Eungie Joo. Right: Zinnia Ambapardiwala of CAMP and pad.ma.

That said, “Speak Memory” was certainly not a summit on Townhouse’s success. There was only one visual clue––a colorful Group Material–style time line of invitations to twelve years’ worth of events––to suggest that anyone was indulging in navel-gazing nostalgia. And so we were left to wonder: Why were we here at all? Hadn’t the archive as concept (and medium) been thoroughly exhausted, the references to Jacques Derrida and Hal Foster worn terribly thin? But maybe one needed to consider the Townhouse experience as emblematic of a larger cultural shift. For the anxiety that has been generating so many archival pursuits, particularly in the Middle East, must surely be rooted in the fact that artistic practices in this part of the world are gaining greater visibility and that as they find their way into mainstream art-historical and art-critical discourse, they risk losing an essential connection to the conditions that produced them in the first place. The real and palpable fear is that small, scrappy, independent archive projects are capable of containing complexities and idiosyncracies that larger, more professionalized concerns are simply bulldozing over.

“Speak Memory” furthered a specific conversation that has been ongoing since the March Meeting in Sharjah and the Home Works Forum in Beirut earlier this year. It was also preceded by three events in Cairo that contributed to the class reunion vibe. One was the workshop “Don’t Wait for the Archive, Part 2,” hosted by pad.ma at the Rooftop Studios in Mounira, part of the Townhouse network. Another was the latest iteration of the Bidoun Library, which has traveled to Dubai, Beirut, and New York since debuting in Abu Dhabi a year ago. Another still was a meeting of the New Museum’s partners in the ongoing, international Museum as Hub project: Seoul’s art space pool, Mexico City’s Museo Experimental El Eco and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Townhouse, and Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum. The night before “Speak Memory” began, pad.ma riffed on the Museum as Hub concept by throwing a party called Archive as Pub.

The conference opened the next morning amid unseasonable heat in the black box of the Rawabet Theatre. Curator Laura Carderera paced the speakers carefully and kept a tight schedule throughout the three-day event. As is so often the case, the artists’ talks were the most illuminating––from Susan Meiselas’s keynote on photographic history in Kurdistan to Celine Condorelli’s poetic account of the cotton industry in Alexandria––and also the most fun, leading to several key exchanges between the curator Barnaby Drabble and the team of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin on the virtues of being unserious. This was echoed in a presentation by pad.ma, when Sebastian Lütgert argued for the importance of playfulness amid archival endeavors that too often take themselves too seriously.

Left: Artists Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg. Right: Curator Barnaby Drabble.

“It’s good to act within your competence,” Lütgert said, “and within your responsibility. But you also need to play.” Then he quoted a little-known proverb—“Good archives copy, great archives steal”—which picked up on another recurring theme: knowing when to let go of control over your material in the interests of making it public.

“If you’re not going to make an archive accessible, why keep it?” asked the curator Vasif Kortun, who likened the current generation of collectors to hunters and gatherers, and also to fierce competitors. “Every time new players come into the field, they think they are the best, that they are reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I was like this. But the idea now is to establish a particular kind of continuity, independent from the financialization of the field.”

“We’ve all been ripped off,” said pad.ma’s Ashok Sukumaran. “We’ve all had moments when our generosity has been abused.” For him, a key task of archival practice today is “to stitch back Hal Foster’s wound” between the display function of the museum and the memory function of the archive, noting that most of the symposium’s participants had been more influenced by exhibitions of archival material than by experiences in rooms full of state records.

Addressing the need not only to open up archives but also to use them for developing different forms of collective labor, Lütgert likened the contemporary archivist to “a collaborator, a traitor, and a parasite. Your first parasite may steal your ideas,” he said, “the next may steal your best friend, but none will do your bookkeeping, and none will do your dishes.” Anyway, “the best way to preserve your material is to give it away,” said pad.ma’s Sanjay Bhangar, offering a practical solution and a suitable conclusion.

Left: Mansour Aziz of the Jadmur Collective in Beirut. Right: Kristine Khouri of the History of Arab Modernities in the Visual Arts.

Speaking from a slightly more old-school position, the historian Khaled Fahmy told fascinating stories about reading nineteenth-century police records in the Egyptian national archives. He also described the fearsome figure of Madame Nadia, who guards this material as if it were her own private fortress, having internalized the logic of the state’s security regime to a devastating (and incredibly damaging) degree (to the extent that scholars rely on American and Israeli archives to research twentieth-century Egyptian history).

Unafraid of raising the democratic potential of the symposium’s subject, Fahmy tied archival research to participation in political life, “the civic value of reading in public,” and the pleasure of seeing people transformed by the documents they discover. In a similar vein, Miguel López, of Red Conceptualismos del Sur, characterized his project with admirable ease, and enviable confidence, as part of a wider democratic reconstitution effort.

At times, the symposium suffered from having too many presentations that merely introduced various projects. But a number of crucial questions surfaced again and again––about the complicity of funding regimes (particularly with regard to Lucie Ryzova and Hussein Omar’s project on oral history and collective memory in downtown Cairo, which is being financed by a consortium of real estate developers) and the propriety of making public material deemed personal or intimate (in an otherwise forceful presentation on SALT, a substantial new research center opening in Istanbul next spring, Kortun seemed momentarily stumped on how to explain what intimacy in the archive was, why it should remain undisclosed, or who had the power to made such decisions).

Left: Moukhtar Kocache of the Ford Foundation and artist Maha Maamoun. Right: Curator Vasif Kortun.

By the end of the third and last day, when the Ford Foundation’s Moukhtar Kocache was called upon to sum up, collate, and complicate the discussions that had taken place, everyone’s archive fever had turned into a pounding archive hangover. The art historian Angela Harutyunyan said that archives had become monsters. One of Townhouse’s artists-in-residence said that at this point maybe the most radical gesture would be to destroy those archives in their entirety. “Right? Fuck the archive. It would make a great T-shirt,” Kocache quipped, before curator Suzanne Cotter and art historian Clare Davies stepped up with some reassurance: “But we love the archive. Don’t stop. Carry on.” A seriously existential midlife crisis narrowly averted, for now.