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MeMu: Walking around with a Camera.

Projects are 0.1% inspiration 89.99% perspiration and legwork, 5.84% artwork, 27.2% communication, 52.3% endurance and the rest can be filled with shots of Tsipouro (or whatever hard liquor makes your brain cells buzz and of course, actual percentages may vary. Statistics are wildly unreliable…).

Today, I'd like to focus on some of the 89.99% that are represented by the legwork involved in such an undertaking- some of the research behind the conception of this multidisciplinary project. In part, I'd like to do this to talk about the process, but also to give myself some critical distance from the depths of the project.

As mentioned earlier, I've been documenting street art and graffiti for a number of years, meaning that I actually walk around cities looking for walls, galleries, little details that enrich otherwise barren facades and hidden messages shining through a coat of paint. It's a good way to explore the territories, both ideological and representational, that are deliniated in a city, of familiarising onesself with art forms and practices. It has also proved to be a good starting point for many a conversation about (street) art and culture, which may take an occasionally surprising turn.

Picture blatantly stolen from Suzeeinthecity
Upon arriving in Berlin in the year 1999, I was struck by how different this city was to my native Cairo, how much more colourful it appeared. Part of the colour came off the walls, which were painted with occasionally massive pieces, messages from anonymous exclaimers, a new symbolic world to decypher. I took part in a few demonstrations, noting, over and over that they left stencils and political messages in their wake.

Returning to Cairo in 2004, I was reversely struck by  how barren the walls were. One of the few spaces that seemed to allow for an interruption was the ramp of the 15th of May bridge in Zamalek. There, I marvelled as I read the words "Don't be Afraid, it's just Street Art." It proved a revelation- in Egypt, this is possible!- a cartoon lightbulb went up in my mind. I began researching whether other projects had managed to materialise somewhere under the surface of  contemporary culture. At the time, I found a lot of nothing. Much later, and after some very sporadic discoveries, I came across this post- by Suzeeinthecity- outlining a brief history of street art. Even later, meeting Rana Jarbou provided me with further and very welcome insight.

I returned to Berlin and found that the pieces that resonated with me the most were not the more elaborate artistic pieces. Rather, I found myself looking for small-scale expression, usually no bigger than an A3 sheet of paper, in the form of stencils with a message. Less artistic, and by the standards of graffiti writers, not even art. But they have their place in the public sphere and they have their purpose beyond the gratification of the author. They spread criticism, love, statements, hate, opposition- subconscious injections to the public discourse. A growing awareness of the meaning of these expressions lead me, who does not consider himself an academic, to texts by thinkers and philosophers, urbanists, artists and architects. I began discovering that an academic subculture was growing around the graffiti subcultures and that several writers and researchers had begun- after the French academic invasion- to investigate street art with some intensity. It had entered the discourse- a nodal network of decentralised knowledge and reflection, a reflection of the object it was examining.

I went back to Egypt in 2009. Nothing had changed, yet. We went to the beach and drew in the sand.

Dave the Chimp
In the meantime, I had visited Dublin, Rome and London, documenting as I went along, the spread of local opinion- and art- on those walls. A couple of years of research had already attuned me to names such as Banksy, Faile, Cartrain and many other, less known names, and I knew which spots might prove to be a fruitful hunting ground in the chase for the elusive tag. London was a revelation, even compared to Berlin- it was there that, mainly through thoughts about Banksy, I started to understand that graffiti and street art was moving out of the streets and becoming- dare I say it- art.

I had also begun to see the process that underlie graffiti, and that these moved very much counter to what I understood as a hegemonic discourse of space. Graffiti artists- or street artists, there is a difference- don't ask for permission to speak. They disrupt and inject, the art from is illegal in many places. They counter what Micheal Bamberg calls a "Master Narrative", or at the very least give it the chance to listen to a voice that would usually not be given the permission to speak. The voice has taken the permission, and it has spoken. Deal with it.

A few years later, two, to be precise, and after much walking around and looking at walls of brick and mortar, I was clicking through a digital wall. I noticed a photograph of a gas cloud envelopping a mass of people crossing a bridge I was very familiar with- Qasr el Nil bridge in Cairo. It was a massive plume of smoke, and soldiers seemed to be pouring forth from it in riot gear. The date was the 25th of January 2011.

To be continued.


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