On the final day of this weekend’s project in Cairo we withdraw from the bewildering and remarkable city of Cairo itself to a hotel conference room of cartoonish decadence to share some of the thoughts and experiences that we’d had in the last few days during this first City Lab event.
In this appropriately anachronistic environment, all ornamented high-ceilinged grandeur like some Versailles stage set with accompanying hotel pastries, one of the interesting questions that emerged was what the ‘contemporary’ in ‘contemporary arts’ actually means?
Over the last few days much of the work that we’d been to see had been described as such whilst often also being quietly dismissed by some visiting programmers as similar to work they had seen twenty or thirty years ago. Such a contradiction could lead us towards the uncomfortable conclusion that the performance work currently popular in Europe is simply more formally and aesthetically sophisticated than that being made here in Cairo. For me this conclusion is transparently unfair. There is nothing to say that the work here in Cairo and that in Brussels or London or Berlin sit at different points on the same inevitable trajectory. Such a belief assumes art can ever be separated from the context, considered as some infinite array of universal specimens like pickled animals floating in jars of formaldehyde.
The problem with the contemporary in contemporary arts is that it has become so swollen and bloated with associations and contradictory understandings it has stopped really meaning anything at all. To some extent ‘contemporary’ is a straightforward description of something current, something new, not belonging to any historic tradition. Yet at the same time ‘contemporary art’ now has its own set of traditions and its own history, largely constellated around related sets of practices in the performing and plastic arts developed in Western Europe and America over the last half a century. Consequently, describing something as contemporary is not only to suggest it is the distinct from the older traditions of a place, it is also to invoke, willingly or not, the spectre of a Western-orientated art market, with its own historically and geographically specific set of expectations and its insatiable desire for consumable novelty.
Perhaps it is this ambiguity of meaning that might impose upon artists who desire to break from the cultural traditions of their particular context a set of expectations about how they must do so. As such an aspiration to be ‘contemporary’ could end up meaning not much more than defying one set of restrictive conventions by adopting another.
The conclusion of sorts from our brief discussion was that perhaps we need to make an effort to be more specific, for the benefit of audiences and ourselves as artists and producers. And that in particular rather than fetishizing the Contemporary we should instead invest more time in the idea of actual contemporaneity – in recognising performance as a means of bringing people together to share a single time and a single place in a world that is increasingly fractured and refracted by the multiple times and non-places of the internet. If performance aspires to be an act of synchronisation, then it is always contemporary – always of the here and now that we might otherwise be only fleetingly aware of, wherever that here and now might be.