A Manual for Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary Times

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Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Illustration by Debbie Poon for ArtAsiaPacific.

To live in the “state of emergency” as an inevitability, is to live in the state of the revolution. At the time of a revolution, production—whichever form it takes —becomes a means for the movement’s survival, for being active in and contributing to change, even for those who, like me, happen not to be in the same physical space as the revolutionary action. Production processes can themselves become documents of the time of their appearance.

Beyond the startling excitement of an accomplished phase of the revolution, it is necessary to understand how what happened, happened. Outcomes of the hardships and the tough living conditions being revolted against became the assets of now-skilled revolutionaries, tools that allowed one to outlive a system’s stubborn-ness to reform. For example, tracing the questions, “Who drew electricity from the lampposts in Tahrir Square to provide the tents with power? And how does he know how to do that?,” could lead one to uncover the involvement of those who might have done the same thing, to sustain a livelihood in the over-populated townships, sans infrastructure, on the outskirts of Cairo.

There may not ever be enough time for a long, uninterrupted scrutiny of the many stories and their paths through a society, given the abundance of locations and all the material produced by politicians, opponents, bloggers, journalists, activists and Twitter users that the revolutions of the last year have already generated, on top of our own notes, reflections, collections and customized archives.

However, to grant both the revolution and ourselves the distance to speak of and understand experiences is to understand the making of, and survival of, a revolution.

Struggling with the reality and validity of artistic production at such a critical time haunts art practitioners. To see artists very present in the story of the revolution—as was the case in Cairo and elsewhere—reconciled me, even if only momentarily, with my existential bewilderment. These art practitioners participated in the marches, sit-ins and awareness campaigns (online and offline), primarily as activists more than anything else. It appears to me to be an unintended proposal to break the unspoken discrepancy between two worlds. As artists become participants in the struggle, citizens, now more than before, embrace the creative expression of themselves and of others. 

However, as Cairo-based artist Doa Aly writes in her unpublished  essay entitled About Art and Freedom, “The layman is finally interested in art, but only on the condition of its overt political engagement. What else can it be if not an instrument for propaganda and historicizing?”

The layman was interested in Tin Soldiers, an installation of mine comprising 12,235 miniature soldiers, depicting 1/200 of the nine standing armies from Middle Eastern countries. I was able to gauge this by the large number of photos that were taken of my piece when it was shown in the Istanbul Biennial in September 2011.

I had produced one-fifth of the same installation for Home Works 5 in Beirut, a year before, and it was originally conceived as an exploration of militarism, might and political relations in the region. Last year, in preparation for the piece’s showing in Istanbul, I sat together with 12 assistants to paint the miniature replicas of soldiers, who at that time were turning their weapons against their own people in the Arab revolts. It was a crucial time, in which we witnessed a national body transforming into a terrorizing one. I started to note down new words with specific meanings that I had learned from this process: defector, deserter, deployed, traitor, infiltrator.

At the same time, I was searching for, collecting and commissioning material (texts and images) for my accompanying publication project on soldiers in the region. These are true stories of soldiers who, in my estimation, ended up in one of four categories: “reflexive,” “fantastical,” “simulated” or “broken.” Up to the end
of 2010, they were primarily fighting battles made and lived in their own minds, simulated in military training, on virtual sites, or—in the case of a few older soldiers who had gone to war in decades past—with their former ideals. In the course of my research, I discovered a cache of lives haunted by imagined conflict and enforced militarism, lives that then abruptly changed in the last year. This publication project was only supposed to be a manual, providing portraits of dormant fighters. Instead, the soldiers came back to life in an exaggerated display of camouflage, street battles and coffins. I struggled not to hate my soldiers as they turned vicious by the end of 2011.

Here I am, consumed by developments in the political environment, which have now thwarted and overridden the objectives of my project. In 2011, I had made the decision to produce something that would speed up an understanding of what was happening, for myself and others, only to be overwhelmed with all the things that one could know.