FROM A BALCONY, orange clotheslines divide the frame, as a few figures rush up and down a street. Gunshots ring out, and the person filming “tsks” under her breath. There are shouts and cries and conversations in Arabic behind and in front of the camera. The camera visibly shakes. Someone is shot and falls to the ground. Keywords under the film are tagged “police gunman” and “blur.”
The video was filmed by an Egyptian civilian in Alexandria on January 21, 2011, during the “18 Days, Friday of Rage” of the Egyptian Revolution. I watch it in 2018 on the home page of 858.ma.
I return to the site to watch another, hopefully (but unlikely) less disturbing video. I skim the 734 topics listed: “#jan25,” “18 Days,” “Ambulances,” “Anti-Capitalism,” “birdshot,” “Blue Bra Girl,” “blood,” “Live Ammo,” “Refugees,” “Right to Water,” “Right to Sanitation,” “Right to Housing,” “Tahrir Cinema,” “Women’s March,” et cetera. The exhausting list is then filtered by place, month, date, and keywords that are equally provocative: “running while filming,” “graffiti,” “injured protester,” “burning CSF truck,” “cotton candy” — even “V for Vendetta Mask.”
Made fully public in January 2018, the site “858.ma” was created by the Mosireen Collective, a nonprofit media collective, as an “initiative to make public all the footage shot and collected since 2011” regarding the Egyptian Revolution. The site, upon launch, had 858 hours of footage — hence the name — and, according to its anonymous founders, is a tool for presenting histories and memories of the revolution and uprisings outside of the Egyptian regime’s counterrevolutionary narrative.
In a previous interview, one collective member stated:
There is no linear narrative. There is no beginning or ending. There is no hero. There is a total kind of mess of images. It is not a story, but the closest mirror of the actual experience of the revolution and the factors that made it a revolution: a thousand different forces pushing in one moment, all in the same direction, but each independently.
The analogy to a mirror perfectly sums up the site’s footage: documentation of the events taking place that can in no way present the true situation. The analogy associates with the archive the subjectivity and simultaneity of mirrored images both as a warning and as an invitation for viewers.
A TV screen plays, and two lovers walk through a desert, eventually stopping upon a triangular light structure and happily posing next to it. The scheduled program begins: interviews with protestors, audience chatter mingling with the newscaster’s monologue. The camera turns away from the TV to the young Egyptians watching. One with glasses, louder than the others, points with his burning cigarette to the TV as others exchange looks between each other. The video is labeled “State TV” 2011-11-19 at Tahrir, Cairo.
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 began when Egyptians began to protest against poverty, government corruption, police brutality, unemployment, and, most especially, the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The uprisings led to the “Day of Rage,” a protest in March that was known for its high use of social media in aiding in the expansion, awareness, and coverage of the protests. With police intervention in the protests came tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition leading to bloody clashes and riots. As Mubarak continuously refused to step down from power, instead promising reforms, network connections and services to social media channels — crucial to protestors — were disrupted. Eventually, the military was brought in and curfews were placed. On February 11, 2011, Mubarak finally resigned and handed power over to the army.
This brief summary of the events in no way attempts to serve as a comprehensive account of the revolution and its much longer-spanning timeline but rather as a brief synopsis during the most heightened part of the revolution. The revolution was, as one may imagine, inundated with far more complexities, such as the influence of the Tunisian Revolution, journalist safety and censorship, the Mubarak regime’s pointed finger at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and various separate factions and groups at play. Official figures and statistics are still unknown, as the State’s account of events is unreliable. 858.ma therefore plays a substantial role in this “battle of narratives,” stating on the site, “of revolution against the counter-revolution of the Army, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Old Regime.”
Figures doused in the greenish glow of a night-vision filter hold a limp adolescent boy, feel his forehead, snap, and gently slap his cheeks to resuscitate him. The camera pans downward. The figures’ voices drown in other off-camera conversations. The snaps continue to echo as the boy does not wake.
The second thesis in Pad.ma’s “10 Theses on the Archive” states, “Archives are not reducible to the particular forms that they take.” If anything, they are expansive. This form of the (public domain) archive allows for it to extend its reach and capabilities: “Archival initiatives are often a response to the monopolization of public memory by the state, and the political effects that flow from such mnemonic power.” When describing the mal d’archive, or archive fever, as a death drive according to Freud, Jacques Derrida briefly explains that because of this death drive and a subsequent yearning for amnesia, the archive is ruined, as is its accumulation and capitalization of memory. Derrida portrays Freud’s description of the archive as an “accumulation and capitalization of memory,” following on his earlier argument that archives must include a theory of institutionalization whether or not the specific politics and laws in place are private or public. Once this argument is extended into an archive on the Egyptian Revolution, documented on personal camera phones, this accumulation of memory is hijacked by the public while still shaking the limits, borders, and other classifications of archives, as Derrida suggests. The politics of memory, the politicization of memory, and the eventual coup d’état are pushed by the public-led archive: “The archive is therefore not representational, it is creative, and the naming of something as an archive is not the end, but the beginning of a debate.” This quality of the archive is demonstrated by Derrida when he argues that the question of the archive is not one of the past, but rather, one of the future, which includes questions of response, promise, and responsibility for the future. The extension into the future elevates the potential of the archive into infinite realms.
The camera zooms in on a protestor standing atop a stationary jeep, filled with junk, holding a poster covered with writing. Next to him hangs a poster with a caricature of a face, not unlike Mubarak’s, with tears streaming down. He chants as the camera shifts to the man behind him, also atop the jeep, pointing with seven fingers, all covered in colors.
These videos, in a foreign tongue and much more familiar images of violence and authoritarian discretion, recall Mariam Ghani’s artwork, which often centers on or functions as the archival. The Afghan- and Lebanese-American artist is known for her research-based practice that often takes the form of long-term collaborations and holds interest in the recontextualization of the past in the present and beyond, particularly in less visible public spaces and moments. Ghani’s “What We Left Unfinished” argues for the accessibility, permanence, and multiplicity of a digital archive (specifically, the digitizing of an analog archive). The work, which included collaborations with the archive of Afghan Films, Afghanistan’s national film institute, functions as a long-term research project pertaining to five unfinished Afghan feature films that were never edited during the Afghan communist coup d’état and eventual civil war. The works weave these films with raw newsreel footage from the same historical period and explore how unfinished works in the past permeate into the present in a distressing manner.
In her own description of the project, Ghani admits that with this archive-based work, “we can reconstruct not the truths, precisely, of how the state existed and acted in those moments, but rather its most important fictions: its desires and fears, ambitions and ghosts.” While 858.ma attempts to work against these fictions to seek truth (not necessarily denying that fiction can showcase truth), Ghani’s work in relation to 858.ma indicates the potentiality of an archive in art — particularly the political and aesthetic role of speculative histories (and futures), historical reconstruction, and the politics of memory.
Ghani’s art ultimately asks, can an archive be art? My own experience as an outsider navigating 858.ma, trying to piece together various contexts with fragmented images and sounds, concluded in ambiguity. Since the site offers no translations of the dialogue in its videos from its native Arabic — most of which is undecipherable even for a native speaker — it operates as more of an abstract art piece, associating the archive with a more subjective, expressive, imaginative, and intimate connotation, than for any direct practical purposes of fully understanding each video. In addition to the poor audio and visual quality of the clips, the sheer number of videos on the site encourages impressionistic and associative surfing rather than in-depth, intensive, close watching, which quickly becomes dense and numbing. If the archive can be considered as abstract art rather than as representational, or even as practical, it fulfills the goals of presenting multiple perspectives and narratives of the Egyptian Revolution and having “visual memory serve purposes as yet unknown,” as indicated on the 858.ma site. This latter goal fully realizes the archive as an art form by adding this speculative futuristic element to the archive and, again, emphasizing the impressions and subjectivity associated with the archive. Archives do not necessarily support this way of viewing, but defining 858.ma’s archive as art, firstly, and an archive, secondly, indexes more possibilities for “reading” the revolution. It catalyzes more — more research, more viewing, more questions, more perspectives.
On a more similar terrain to 858.ma is Ghani’s “Index of the Disappeared,” a collaboration with Chitra Ganesh, which functions as a physical archive of post-9/11 disappearances, particularly through censorship and data blackouts. The index extends to include black sites, corporate surveillance, the Pentagon Papers, and more. The focus of Ghani’s and Ganesh’s work here is to allow for public conversation around these topics and to make connections between all the various pieces of information provided by the archive as a starting point — a helpful lens to use when viewing the archive 858.ma presents as well. Sifting through the site’s massive load of information and footage is enabled by viewing separate videos as introductory links to larger chains in conversation with one another. Thus, venturing into abstract territory prevents an inevitable yield to extreme stimulation that almost immediately leads to a numbing void.
What Ghani does in “Index of the Disappeared,” however, is only tangential to 858.ma’s archive. Ghani, in her research-based archival works, highlights the secrets and coded language of those in power, whereas 858.ma focuses on works and perspectives of the people under that power. While both archives serve similar purposes — uncovering hidden agendas, histories, and dynamics to showcase other more “truthful” narratives — 858.ma hands much more power to the public.
The camera pans up to the top of the buildings, builds suspense, and comes back down into the crowd, continuously in and out of focus and dark where the street lights aren’t illuminated. Drumming, marching, chanting sounds reverberate. Something falls from the building.
The public uses poor images: the footage featured on 858.ma is far from cinematic, likely shot on camera phones with low resolution. As Hito Steyerl states in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” “The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.” Steyerl goes on to describe Julio García Espinosa’s Third Cinema manifesto in relation to the poor image, where with new media comes a “sort of mass film production: an art of the people” that “will jeopardize the elitist position of traditional filmmakers.” This “mass film production” carries practical political meaning beyond the symbolic when extending it from film into the territory of governmental monopolization of public history, narratives, and memory. 858.ma challenges the “elitist position” given by this State account of the Egyptian Revolution and hands over the power of narrative to the people. Placing this mass film production onto a public domain, in other words, practices the “appropriation and displacement” that Steyerl highlights in terms of the function of poor images. As Steyerl argues, “Users become the editors, critics, translators, and (co-)authors of poor images.” Ownership of poor images in these instances becomes collective in 858.ma and diminishes any hierarchies or distinctions between author and observer, combating the neoliberal constraints of media production within post-socialist and postcolonial parameters of nation-states, cultures, and, ultimately, archives.
The artist continues to stress the importance of the dematerialization of the poor image: as images lose matter, they gain speed. Apply this logic to 858.ma, instances — which are many — where the film is blurred, shaking, and bodies and objects are indistinguishable, the higher the number of associations and meanings extracted and the more speed with which they are shared, edited, and in conversation with other videos. According to Steyerl, this relationship between matter and speed of the archive is shared with both semiotic production and conceptual art. The flexibility and the abstract “plays in favor of the creation and dissemination” of the archive. Lo-fi becomes a potential liberator for the people.
What Steyerl does not account for are what one might call “poor sounds,” the yells and shouts that reverberate and clash with one another, distorting words, resulting in sheer dissonance. In the “Testimony” films, a single voice in a quiet room cacophonizes with its own echo into an indecipherable symphony with occasional staccato notes of wailing sirens outside. If poor images function against “the fetish value of high resolution” and visibility, poor audio quality achieves the same. Giving voice to the people, even a distorted one, allows for less of a voyeuristic, fetishistic take on behalf of the viewer (listener), instead paving a more constructive, attuned way of listening and viewing. It disrupts the normal processes of receiving, thinking, and consuming information with “fractured and flexible” sounds, images, and, as Steyerl argues, temporalities. Dispersed spectators, abstract images and sounds, and the ephemeral make for new articulations, reproductions, speculations, histories, imaginations, possibilities, and, inevitably, futures.
Clad in white, screaming with a hoarse voice, sits a lone man — perhaps the “Mubarak Supporter” as the title of the video suggests — with his palms and face facing the sky. Up close, his eyes appear to be closed. The video ends with another man turning around, taking his phone out of his pocket, and raising it toward the direction of the man in white.
Perwana Nazif is a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. In addition to her own literary and photography magazine, Cold Cut, she is the contributing art editor for Coeval and frequently writes about art and music for various publications.