A powerful—and poignant—new media installation featuring the work of the late Ahmed Bassiouny represents Egypt at this year’s Venice Biennale. Part of the installation is Bassiouny’s 30 Days of Running in Place. The film shows the artist wearing a plastic sweatsuit and jogging inside a glass cage as sensors measure his energy expenditure. Initially exhibited in Cairo in early 2010, 30 Days is viewed as an allegory of wasted life under dictatorship. The film is juxtaposed with video images Bassiouny took of the protests in Tahrir Square during the first days of the uprising that ousted the Mubarak regime. Bassiouny, thirty-two, was shot and killed during the protests on January 28, apparently by a police sniper. Challenging doubts that Bassiouny’s Tahrir footage constitutes art, criticRachel Spence, writing in the Financial Times, said: “Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked ‘in the gap between art and life’.” The Venice installation was organized by Shady El-Noshokaty, an assistant professor in the Performing and Visual Arts department at the American University in Cairo. He described Bassiouny, who was also a musician, as one of Egypt’s most important young contemporary artists, whose “talent developed relentlessly, in all directions.”
Another AUC professor carrying messages from Tahrir is Rasha Abdulla, of the Journalism and Mass Communication department, who has pioneered the study of social media in the Middle East. At the Personal Democracy Forum conference held in New York in June, she elaborated on her analysis of how Egypt’s uprising was fueled by a new culture of communication: “It was a people’s revolution accelerated by the Internet as a tool. In Egypt, there was no other space, no other venue, for people to say what they wanted. The regime talked at you vertically. The Internet provided a very necessary space for people to express themselves. For a good chunk of the people who came out to Tahrir, that was something they subconsciously learned by communicating on Facebook, a pattern of horizontal communication that didn’t exist before.” Earlier, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Abdulla lobbied for an end to Egyptian military trials for Internet activists, and for a law to criminalize shutting down a nation’s Internet service, as the Mubarak regime did amid the protests.
Marc Lynch, a leading authority on Arab media and an associate professor at George Washington University, remembers being struck on a visit to Egypt by how “everyone here had a better cell phone that I did––sometimes two or three better phones—and they were doing things with them that I just could not do.” These “digital natives,” Lynch believes, have contributed to a profound transformation in the Arab world regardless of whether or not the uprisings succeed immediately. “The general empowerment of Arab publics, and the unbelievable way information is produced, disseminated, and consumed in the Arab world, is the most important transformation in the region,” Lynch told the AUC conference “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?” in June. “It means that even those governments that do not become democratic in the coming days will have to behave differently towards their publics if they hope to survive or prosper.”