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"We always dreamt of a city in which the old and the modern world could exist side by side in harmony. […] We dreamt that art would happen on every street corner and that the time and place of artistic happening could find their way into daily life." With this statement, the choreographer duo Selma and Sofiane Ouissi opened the festival of contemporary art Dream City II, which at any rate fulfilled this dream for four days in the old city of Tunis.
Creating (new) sites of art in the Arab world, making room for artistic interventions intended for a local (Arab) audience – both rather rare until then – was the basic idea of the Belgian festival organizer Frie Leysen in 2007 . For in her opinion, the artists all over the world still produce primarily for the art market in the West. In 2007, in the framework of meeting points 5 , when Leysen commissioned the siblings Selma and Sofiane Ouissi to put together a tailor-made art program for the city of Tunis, the task was to present to a younger generation art that reflects the city’s situation.
That was the birth hour of Dream City I, quite an unusual spectacle of arts in Tunis’ old city. Originally conceived as an art biennial, last year Dream City II had to be cancelled on short notice because of a political event in the country. More preparation time merely let the project grow: from October 13 to 16, 2010, the old city of Tunis became a "dream city" for the second time.
The curators would like Dream City to be understood less as a festival than as a laboratory for thinking or a breeding ground for creative production. A group of domestic and foreign artists and urbanists were called upon to craft a model that would reinvent the city. As in the past with Fluxus, the aim thereby is the "democratization of art" and the propagation of the "participation of the public in art activities" and the "dissolution of separations between artistic media" à la John Cage. Now art takes place in public space, instead of in the hallowed halls of the art institutions. Thus, the sites of the events of Dream City II were the twisting alleys of the old city, deserted palaces, madrasas, libraries, gravestones, or construction sites – all in all, quite unconventional: places, but sites of social encounter. The ramp of the stage as the line of separation between reality and fiction disappeared, and the audience, along with chance passers-by, came into close contact with actors from such various fields as visual art, theater, film, dance, music, photography, architecture, and sociology.
That good art doesn’t absolutely need the "White Cube" has proven true ever more often for a long time. At biennials of contemporary art, old factories, warehouses, untenanted townhouses, or churches are the preferred sites for adaptation as temporary sites and workshops of art. Equipped with a map, art-enthused visitors go on a tour of discovery on which Boy Scout skills are often advantageous. As on an adventurous scavenger hunt, one asks one’s way and seeks the directional arrows in the labyrinth of the old city. Unfamiliar quarters and squares are thereby explored, and sites of great charm emerge and temporarily become the stage of a happening or a component of a site-specific work.
24 of the 40 works presented in Dream City II were site-specific. Most of them dealt with urban culture (Dalel Tangour, Zied Meddeb Hamrouni) or with the social structure of the city (Héla Ammar, Sonia Kallel, Faten Rouissi). Others revealed monsters of a divided history, for example Wael Shawky, who narrates the Crusades anew from the viewpoint of the Arabs . Digitally manipulated, large-format photo works by Patricia Triki displayed "the dream city" in new coloration in the wider environs of Tunis. Desolate construction sites and lonely alleys were ensouled with especially composed songs (Alia Sellami), and a gray interior courtyard was enlivened with an inflatable sculpture in the form of monstrous flowers and artificial birdsong (ParadeDesign). Some artists triggered great astonishment, for instance Maren Strack with her trusty Rapunzel-muddclubsolo and Johan Lorbeer with Tarzan. The latter seems to have come the closest to the concept of "democratic art". For while most of the projects played out concealed in interior courtyards or on deserted squares, Lorbeer’s still life performance on the façade of a building on a busy street was not only accessible for everyone, but also always attracted a crowd and distracted drivers to the point of traffic chaos; even praises of God were heard.
Conspicuous was the non-presence of works with political-critical content. Instead of politically agitating or engaging in social criticism, the festival participants banked on sharpening the senses, which enhanced the pleasure factor and the entertainment value of the event. "Entertainment and art are not isolated from each other. Entertainment in art is like color in art," Martin Kippenberger is supposed to have once said.
Great pleasure in experimentation, the search for the unknown, and openness to plurality were omnipresent in Dream City II. This leaves the ambition for absolute fulfillment open, so that the beautiful dream of a city in harmony is not over and can appear anew in two years, namely in 2012.
Art historian, specializes in contemporary art from South Asia, Middle East and North Africa. Lives in La Marsa,Tunisia.
Dream City II
Festival of contemporary art in the old city of Tunis, Tunisia
13 - 16 October 2010
Selma & Sofiane Ouissi
Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme
Yamen Abidi & Mahrane Hannachi
Fathi Akkari & Fatma Ben Saidane
Sondos Belhassen & Malek Sebaï
Slah Ben Ayed
Suad Ben Slimane
Collectif Atelier Sans Titre
Hatem Karoui & Saber Mosbeh
Zied Meddeb Hamrouni
R. Soukni Baccouch