Andy Field, co-director of Forest Fringe, explores Cairo's complicated streets, and its even more complicated politics. This is the first in a series of dispatches from Urban Heat – a new project exploring the future of theatre’s engagement with urban space and communities. First published online at exeuntmagazine.com on April 25, 2015
I am stood on the cracked pavement by the side of a busy road in Cairo. It is dark but it is still warm. Beneath the drone of passing cars I can hear pop music spilling from a massive restaurant boat moored nearby. I look lost, because I am lost, or at least I am anxiously deciding between a series of possible ways of getting from this hot noisy street to the bar where I am supposed to be meeting my friends. I wave unconvincingly at taxis. I start to try to follow the blue dotted line on my otherwise signal-less phone; a line that I do not yet know is directing me to entirely the wrong place anyway. Nearby two policemen with a dated-looking rifle loiter by a small police hut. If this were the opening shot of a film, it would be a film about a man who is out of his depth.
What am I supposed to be doing, here in this bewildering city? This is a question that seems to hang in the air over the four days of this event, the first in a series taking place across Europe in the next year as part of a project supporting artists to engage with urban areas and communities. We move through the streets in convoyed minibuses like faint echoes of the thousands of tourists who no longer come here. And though we know we are not tourists our actual relationship to the city is not entirely clear. We listen to talks, we watch performances, we tentatively explore Cairo’s complicated streets and its even more complicated politics. The event is called a ‘city lab’ and thus the assumption might be that we are here to discover something, but we have yet to figure out what.
Buried in this feeling of uncertainty I think there is a larger question with which we are all faced, about theatre and its value as a tool for really changing a place. Without the violent tangibility of architecture or the suffocating pervasiveness of film and television, what kind of role can performance actually play in re-imagining Cairo, or Lisbon, or London, or any of the cities we will visit during this project? Navigating through the shadows of an unreal landscape of tower blocks and monuments and a political regime of such conspicuous power, a city like this can render the act of making anything appear trivial, maybe even decadently so. I think this is partly deliberate.
Yet when I wasn’t being awed by it or lost within it, Cairo has revealed itself as a kind of reaffirmation of performance’s possible value as a way of remaking urban space and communities.
In Cairo more than anywhere else I have visited it is apparent that a city not an object but a process of contestation and negotiation; a collective figuring out of politics, economics, history and religion through the constantly shifting relationships between bodies and other bodies and the buildings they move between. On the third day of our trip we met with Omar Nagati, the founder of CLUSTER – an urban lab for the study of Cairo. Through Omar’s nuanced analysis of the city and his dizzying tour of the its maze of hidden passageways, Cairo becomes a kind of social discourse. A book that is constantly being rewritten from above and from below. His talk reminds me of Henri Lefebvre’s description of the city as a site of desires and of revolutions – a place of inevitable, necessary conflict. It is in these areas of contested meaning and negotiated purpose that ordinary people can slowly realise their own desires through everyday acts of mutuality and resourcefulness.
Omar understands his job as an architect to be not the building spectacular of civic palaces or ever-higher corporate towers, but rather the mapping and facilitating of this ongoing process of collective negotiation. His practice is preoccupied with the spaces between buildings. He is an architect for our current era, in which the majority of the built fabric of our largest cities has already been constructed. His imaginative interventions in urban space, and his interactions with shopkeepers, bar owners, government departments and ordinary walkers in the city provide a compelling demonstration of the importance of negotiation as a creative practice, as a vital way of reinventing a city outside of its institutions of wealth and governance.
For me, live performance has always similarly revolved around negotiation as a creative practice. Live performance is the gathering together of people at a particular time and in a particular place and a figuring out of how they will share and inhabit that place. All the best theatre I know is made in the shifting relationships between these gathered people, in the decisions that are made as to how they will meet each other, the small acts of care, or violence or love or generosity that they offer to each other, performers and audience, audience and each other. Every time we enter a theatre we are re-iterating or re-imagining a way of being with and to each other. No other discipline is so concerned with this messy, intimate, intangible process. No other discipline so fundamentally foregrounds the act of negotiation as process and material.
As such, I want to believe that live performance is uniquely positioned to play a central role in exploring and facilitating the process of collective negotiation that should mark any functioning, liveable city. Theatre as the architecture of a post-construction age.
But what kind of theatre? What might it look like and where might we find it – in the ambiguous informal spaces of Cairo or the hyperregulated supersurveiled streets of London? And who is this theatre made for, and who is this theatre made with? There will be, I hope, plenty more time for these kinds of questions. For now at least I feel like we have found a little direction.