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Contempory arts festival hits nine cities in one go

With a little chaos and a lot of ambition, Meeting Points 5 seeks to do what culture officials in the Arab world do not: produce, present and tour

The operative word for Meeting Points 5, a multidisciplinary contemporary arts festival that is rolling through nine cities in the Arab world this month, is spread. Though it began as a small, modest initiative three years ago, the festival has since grown into a force of nature, with all the potentially unmanageable elements of surprise that such a characterization implies. Meeting Points 5 is now creeping through the region like volcanic lava and sinking down into its cities like sediment layered onto so many urban grids and mazes.

Its public may be limited to the young and the critically restless, but it is a juggernaut nonetheless. If you are living anywhere in the Arab world today, the chances are good that Meeting Points 5 is there to be discovered in a city near you - tunneling into theaters and concert halls, tucking into the corners of major and minor art spaces and tumbling onto the streets themselves through upstart urban interventions and public art projects.

Spearheaded by the Young Arab Theater Fund in Cairo, Meeting Points grew out of the group's work on supporting and restructuring art spaces in the region to make them more capable and better equipped to initiate, host and tour new productions in dance, music, theater, film, performance and the visual arts.

The first editions were tiny, taking up residence one city at a time in Amman, Alexandria, Cairo and Tunis. The fourth iteration extended its reach and tackled seven cities at once: Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Minia (in Upper Egypt) and Tunis (the Beirut edition of Meeting Points 4 stitched itself into the program of Home Works 3, which took place in November 2005).

This time around, Meeting Points is spreading a dense and diverse program across the region and into the participating cities. With more than 20 artists and groups involved, the festival opened in Minia on November 1, in Alexandria and Rabat on November 3 and in Cairo and Amman on November 4.

Meeting Points 5 rolled into Tunis last night with an exhibition by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky and a performance by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue. Next week it hits Damascus and Beirut, and the following week it lands in Ramallah. Further adventures in Berlin (starting November 22) and Brussels (in January 2008) are on deck, taking the festival to Europe for the first time in its history.

So far, the run has been rocky. Between 25th-hour fundraising, catalogues delayed and stuck at various border crossings and three of the seven newly commissioned works unfinished or in disarray, Meeting Points 5 is at best a work in progress. It may try the patience of audiences and age the participating artists with organizational glitches, but the festival is also a necessary exercise in troubleshooting. It is bringing to the surface the all the problems that must be solved if cultural life in cities across the Arab world is to become more fluid.

What is perhaps most striking about Meeting Points is the way in which it both incorporates and departs from all known models of cultural production, diffusion and display. It isn't a biennial, it isn't an art fair and it isn't a festival like any other.

"We are working as a production fund, a tour agent and an exhibition," says Maha Maamoun, an artist and the assistant curator of Meeting Points 5. "We are drawing on different models and bringing them together."

Maamoun joined Meeting Points a year ago and one imagines she has slept very little since then. She is part of the support structure for Tarek Abou El Fetouh (the Young Arab Theater Fund's director) and Frie Leysen (the curator of Meeting Points who founded and directed Belgium's Kunsten Festival des Arts for 10 years). The 10-person team includes designers, technicians and various coordinators and communications staff.

"Frie came on board, I can on board and we started doing research," says Maamoun. "We visited all of the cities, went to venues and tried to spread out. We met people who were not necessarily the known names. We tried to strike a balance between stars and younger artists. We didn't want it to be just the usual suspects," she explains. "And even where we have the usual suspects, they may be known to a certain international art community but they don't show a lot in the region and are not necessarily known here."

For example, the lineup includes Beirut- and Brooklyn-based artist Walid Raad, who is presenting "The Loudest Muttering Is Over: Documents from the Atlas Group" in Cairo and Tunis next week. Also included is Paris- and Tangier-based artist Yto Barrada, who is screening her short films "The Smuggler" and "The Magician" in Amman, Cairo, Ramallah, Berlin and Brussels (though for reasons not entirely clear the all-day loop scheduled for Amman's Darat al-Funun was restricted to a single screening per day, leaving the foundation to supplement the program with a work from its own collection).

Other known entities include Palestinian conceptual prankster Khalil Rabah, Egyptian video and performance artist Amal Kenawy and Egyptian video artist Sherif El Azma, who is giving a performance in Beirut and teamed up with fellow artist Hassan Khan for one of the best innovations introduced by this edition of Meeting Points, a mobile film library and screening station called the DV-theque.

"Whenever we traveled, people would tell us names, give us lists of films, maybe telephone numbers of directors or maybe not," says Maamoun. "But it is very difficult to actually find these films."

A prime example of research exposing a gap and attempting to fill it, the Meeting Points team enlisted Khan and Azma in Cairo, artist and curator Akram Zaatari in Beirut and Moroccan filmmaker Ali Essafi to curate a film program that is now traveling to all of the participating cities.

Each team devised a list of 10 to 20 films, including one of their own. The selection, which includes shorts, features and documentaries by the likes of Mohamed Soueid, Tewfiq Saleh, Omar Amiralay, Tirdad Zolghadr and Danielle Arbid, offers an overview of Arab cinema that is highly subjective by design.

"We wanted subjective choices," says Maamoun. "We didn't want to end up with an exhaustive film history." But out of the total number of films proposed, permissions were obtained for just 30. "Funding for the DV-theque came late and it was limited," she says. "But we really believe in this project and would like to develop and expand it."

Another innovation is the "Unclassified" project. Meeting Points has a local partner in each city, from Makan in Amman to Ashkal Alwan in Beirut. But it also has a second collaborative layer in which local artists and curators create their own program tethered specifically to the city.

"With the central program that tours the region, we didn't want it to just parachute in and leave," says Maamoun, reiterating what has long been a concern with biennials. "So we asked curators and artists to create a program that really spreads out within the city." The "Unclassified" project, taking place in six of the nine cities, is the underground of the festival overall, hinging on chance encounters with an often unsuspecting public and the urges of a younger generation to experiment and explore.

Without question, this Meeting Points is an unwieldy mess and the schedule itself is a taxing exercise in hypothetical time management. But at the same time the festival offers an unrivaled opportunity to catch bracing works by contemporary artists who live and create in a region where the official infrastructures for cultural production rarely show and almost never share their output.

Meeting Points seeks to do what ministries of culture across the Arab world, where they function at all, do not and will not, either out of bureaucratic cluelessness or the seemingly insurmountable logistical obstacles posed by national borders, political conflicts and the like. Not for nothing does Meeting Points take cities rather than states as working units.

But given the problems so far with Khalil Rabbah's "TVZero123," a live broadcast of Palestinian villagers renovating buildings in the West Bank (the transmission failed in Alexandria, Cairo and Amman), Wael Shawky's "Telematch" trilogy (which expanded far beyond the logistical support it initially required) and Amal Kenawy's performance "Cairo ... Eating Me Inside," which worked in Minia but suffered all manner of technical maladies in Amman - one may wonder if Meeting Points 5 has actually spread itself too thin.

"Commissioning new works is a risk and it's painful," says Maamoun. "I'm sure there will be some problem-solving. We've been working on this for a year and I think the bottom line is that we were too ambitious for our means. Right now we're all so close to the details. When it's all over, I hope we'll be able to look at it from a distance."

For more information on Meeting Points 5 and a full schedule of upcoming events, please check out www.meetingpoints.org

Marseille,11 19 2007
The Daily Star
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