The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Cairo’s Townhouse looks to the future
‘Out of Print’ invites artists and the public to experiment with 3D printers, VR
CAIRO: “Out of Print,” the exhibition now showing at Townhouse gallery’s Factory space, invites artists and members of the public to experiment with 3D printers and virtual reality. The show’s driven by engineers from the group Cairo Hackerspace, who’ve made 3D printers out of recycled materials.
“We were able to get them a grant and a bus to travel around Egypt to run workshops and their own virtual reality station,” Townhouse director and founder William Wells told The Daily Star. “Now artists are making appointments with them, discussing concepts and making maquettes, which allow the artist to imagine their work in a 3D format before taking the next step.”
Wanting to overcome the limitations of two-dimensional art, Cairo Hackerspace is allowing room for new concepts.
“I’m working on a project right now [that] an artist put forward, but we’re still talking ideas over,” explained Cairo Hackerspace’s Mahfouz Mohamad. “They want to look at cultural ideas in architecture and how the same ideas and motifs get repeated across different cultures and what each one interprets them as.”
Founded near Tahrir Square in 1998, Townhouse gallery grew to be the hub of Cairo’s contemporary art scene. After raids, several closures and the partial demolition of the gallery’s original space, the administration moved across the street to the smaller Townhouse Factory space in early 2016. Since then the arts institution has been given permits to rebuild and renovate its original premises.
Townhouse has adapted during its time in the Factory, repurposing the paper factory-turned-exhibition hall into their central location. As a multipurpose space, it attracted a wider audience and created a more engaging atmosphere, inspiring its managers to alter plans to renovate the old building, slated to start this week.
“There is an energy that has drawn in a whole audience that we possibly missed because of the 10 steps up to the first floor in the old building,” Wells said. “The dynamic that’s been created by having the library, salon talks, with an exhibition going on, right next to the shops and theatre section ... it has to do with all the activities in one space at street level.”
It’s a challenge running library salon talks, planned seminar programs and exhibitions in a single space without schedule clashes. Yet giving the Factory space a more central role has allowed Wells to explore new ideas for Townhouse’s original premises – which he hopes to reopen by December – ideas that reflect the changes in Cairo’s art scene.
“We’re not going back to 2015,” Wells said. “We’re going to try and address Cairo in 2018, so we’re looking at different purposes for the space, that actually address the concerns and interests of artists, for conversations to take place.”
One new idea concerns the the artists-in-residence program. Due to demand – like that of recent resident artist Søren Thilo Funder – the program was partially restarted and is expected to be fully up and running by September. Studio spaces, stock-in-trade for such arts residencies, no longer seem as central as they once were.
“We still have apartments but we don’t have studios,” Wells explained. “... We’re discovering more that the artists’ practices are working with video, with text, and that the studios are no longer a major part of their process.”
Townhouse has a variety of current and upcoming programs and exhibitions focused on giving opportunities to young and emerging artists. One of these is “Rewriting Criticism,” a six-month seminar series focussing on budding writers interested in critical writing, primarily within the arts.
“We have editors, writers, coming in to give talks and we put up an open call for young writers,” Wells said. “We were overwhelmed, so the jury picked 16 young writers to take part on a monthly basis.”
Later this month “Rewriting Criticism” hopes to host Negar Azimi, senior editor of Bidoun Magazine, who will present a curatorial project that focusses on the Middle East and its Diasporas. Coinciding with this, author Yasmin al Rashidi – whose novel “Chronicle of a Last Summer” comes out in paperback in June – will give a library salon talk.
In July, Townhouse will present “Do It” [in Arabic]. Curated by Sharjah Art Foundation founder Hoor alQasimi, and based on the publication and exhibition project founded in 1993 by Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Do It” features over 100 artists who give written instructions that the public can follow to make a new work of art.
“We will select a number of those recipes and allow the public to come in and perform or create instillation or sound pieces,” Wells said. “We have a unique relationship through our outreach programs, which we’ve been running for 15 years, with a lot of different people in Egypt. We’re thinking of addressing “Do It” both with our work with children and our work with refugees.”
Townhouse also intends to start the “Open Index Project” this summer. Following the 2015 raid that saw part of their extensive archive go missing, the project will create an open source archive for contemporary art institutions. It’s expected to take three years to complete.
“It wasn’t just Townhouse. There were several spaces that were raided in a two-to-three-month period,” Wells said. “What we need to do is create an autonomous open source archive base where every institution or artist has some control over what goes up, so it’s not just a Townhouse project.”
Since the 2011 revolution, Cairo’s art community has faced stricter censorship regulations, but artists are still managing to subtly express their views.
“When I first opened, artists knew and learned how to navigate censorships and to produce work that was both challenging intellectually and creative, whilst raising awareness about the importance of expressing themselves without necessarily addressing the things that would offend the people in power,” Wells noted. “I’m seeing a resurgence of this nuanced approach in this generation.”
Shrugging off its tumultuous history, Townhouse is reconfiguring and programming for the next generation, hoping to keep offering opportunities for upcoming artists.
“I’m here and we’re looking toward the future ... We’re moving forward despite the obstacles, when so many people are dwelling on what happened in the past,” Wells said. “It’s impossible for a place like Townhouse to sit and talk to them about yesterday. They’re not interested. They’re interested in tomorrow.
“We have the experience of the last 15 years and we’ve matured as an institution. Before we were just space. Now we’re a large institution and we have a responsibility to stay open for these young people.”
For more information on goings on at Townhouse, see http://www.thetownhousegallery.com/