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Exploring public space in Cairo

After a three-year investigation into the urban landscape of the great Cairo megalopolis, Swiss Artist Maia Gusberti is currently exhibiting C.Scapes at the Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art.

C.Scapes is part of the Where Are You? exhibition organized by the Cairo liaison office of the Swiss Art Council (Pro Helvetia). Gusberti first visited Cairo in October 2006 through the Pro Helvetia Artist in Residency (AIR) program. Cairo perfectly fed into her interests in exploring perceptions of urban spaces and cartography. Since then, she has returned to Cairo eight times since 2006. Throughout her visits, Gusberti adopted an archaeological technique to examine the complex social and architectural systems through which the city operates. In C.Scapes, she uses video documentation, photographic filming techniques, online images and a sound piece to create a lively image of the city. The video installation does not attempt to make a generalized statement about Cairo, explains Gusberti, but rather seeks to initiate a dialogue about spaces around the city that are socially, culturally and politically formed.

C.Scapes discusses the development of public space in Cairo over time and the vertical and horizontal expansion of private space into the public. It also investigates the socio-economic context of Cairo as a large urban center in the region. Instead of filming on the streets, Gusberti decided to film public space only from the confines of private space; through windows, from behind curtains and from rooftops. These images were complemented with panoramic shots of the city from such tourist venues as Cairo Tower and Mokattam plateau. This choice was initially a reaction to local restrictions on filming in public spaces. Local constraints inspired Gusberti to offer an alternative and private perspective on public spaces in Cairo. “I did not want to apply for the filming permit, not as an act of rebellion, but as a drive to work creatively within the constraints and offer a true reflection of public spaces in the city” said Gusberti. Hence, challenges to filming on the street were incorporated into the discussion on public space through the video piece.

Building on the notion of a private perception of the public, Gusberti conducted in-depth interviews with 12 inhabitants of Cairo. Her interviewees had different socio-economic backgrounds and lived in different areas around Cairo including Maadi, Manial, Ard el-Lewa, Rehab City and some scattered settlements. Interviewees’ perceptions of public space varied greatly in both abstract and real terms. Some associated it with safety and freedom, while others believed it to be restricted by local customs and traditions. However, accessibility was a recurring theme in the discussion. Many public spaces become semi-private through the imposition of entry barriers such as social class and high entrance fees, leaving few real public spaces around the city. The interviews are interwoven with street sounds by musician Mahmoud Refaat in order to present an audio narrative of the city. Subtitles are used and visually incorporated in the video piece.

C.Scapes is presented as a double projection. The screens juxtapose moving and static images of public and private spaces and narrative text and panoramic views of the city are extended over both screens. This allows Gusberti to present multiple narratives and perspectives of the city. She gives a level of abstraction to her work which allows the audience to engage the installation. Audiences find themselves between the images and narratives, which never refer to the same places, and thus trigger their imagination and encourage them to draw on their own personal references to interpret the piece. This was especially clear at the beginning of the piece, which sets a dream like mood; the audience listens to the interviewees define public space, while looking at panoramic shots of the city through a transparent curtain. The interviewees are  never shown in the projection; however, their presence is indicated through the sound piece and the window frames through which Gusberti filmed Cairo.

Cairo’s urban landscape is a recurring theme in the art scene; however, C.Scapes explores its spatial conditions in an intriguing and reflective manner through an ongoing dialogue between the artist, interviewees and audience.

Where Are You? is exhibited at the Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art from November 1 – 22, 2009

10 Nabarawy Street, Downtown, Cairo

Opening hours Daily from 10am to 2pm and 6pm to 9pm

Closed on Thursday


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