Excursions in the Dark

HD Video, b/w, 20 min.

“Excursions in the dark” is a visual study of the empty streets of post-revolutionary Cairo after midnight, accompanied by an associative narrative; it is an attempt to trace the unconscious connections between the city’s architecture, collective dreamscapes and political agency.

“Until recently I used to see in the future in my dreams. A few weeks ago I dreamt of a kid in my house and then some days later my son told me his wife was expecting a child. This sort of prediction happened many times. Lately I went to a Sheikh and told him about this. He told me: Now that you have lifted this secret, it won’t happen again. And so it was. I can’t remember my dreams anymore.”

While on Tahrir square activists had again set up camps in protest against the provisional government, I was sitting 500m down Talaat Harb street in Groppi’s neglected art deco café, talking to people about the dreams they had the night before. The dreamless man was the driver who had picked me up from the airport some days ago, now having a Nescafe with me. I had come to Cairo as a resident artist at Townhouse Gallery, three days after Hosni Mubarak had left the city, with the vague idea of documenting the situation.

Over the following weeks I accumulated a growing collection of dream-memories shedding a light on collectively unspoken desires and fears, eager to find access to the deposit of unsorted ideas, from which this society in the making could draw on (a selection of these dream accounts has been published in Bidoun magazine’s #25 issue).

In between these conversations I was grazing through Walter Benjamin’s massive Passagenwerk that I had rather accidentally taken to post-revolutionary Cairo. Benjamin’s reflections on the subliminal desires and aspirations enciphered into architecture and other “wish images” in which “each epoch entertains images of its successor” were based on the city life of Paris in the 19th century. But to my surprise the area around me, a stretch of streets between Tahrir and Attaba Square, with its decayed Rococo houses around wide squares and alleys, proved to be quite a pertinent setting for the reading.

Downtown Cairo, in colloquial Arabic “Wust al-Balad”, or “the heart of the country” was envisioned by the same city planner who had restructured the French capital: Baron Haussmann. His concept to use architecture as a means of sovereign control had a huge impact on most modern cities, and is subject to harsh criticism in Benjamin’s writings. As the French revolution had taken place in the narrow, medieval streets of old Paris, where it was easy to set up barricades and control whole areas of the city, Napoleon III had commissioned Haussmann to envision an easily controllable city. This new Paris with its linear perspectives became the paradigm for downtown Cairo, on the orders of Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, in the second half of the 19th century.

As in January 2011 not even the surveillance architecture could stop people from demonstrating and downtown had become the epicentre of street protests, as of January 28th the ruling military council ordered a curfew on this area, starting mostly at midnight, ending at six o’clock in the morning. Breaking the curfew may to result in a six month sentence, or worse.

I spent several nights filming the empty streets, negotiating my way through the check points. In these nights the city was covered in a quietness, a lack of movement that I doubt Cairo has ever known before. This sudden absence of people in the streets brought otherwise hidden actors into the foreground: the architecture, the lightning, graffiti on walls, the residues of daytime. A space waiting to be filled, in a “standby” status resembling a theatrical stage after closing hours, before the curtain rises again.

What was it waiting to be filled with? The absent actors were negotiating the form of a post-revolutionary society during daytime on these streets and places. At night they were lying in bed, countering the restrictive public space controlled by military check points with the unbounded realm of their imaginations, and their unconscious taking over.

The intricate connection between collective dreamscapes, architecture and political agency runs through the Passagenwerk. For Benjamin the past and the present were connected like the dream and the waking world. The study of history in this reading takes the shape of dream interpretation and this interpretation becomes a process of awakening.

What this could mean practically in the context of Cairo, a young writer illustrated for me when I asked him for his nightly dreams: “Usually at night our unconscious is controlled and haunted by daily life. Now, after the revolution, it’s the other way around: we direct our daily life by enacting our unconscious.”

Excerpt (2:30min):