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During the first four nights of September 2016, the Tunis Medina took on an entirely different appearance. The walls and contours of this historical neighbourhood were bathed in streams of light, which interacted with the traditional architecture to create contemporary artworks, while a dense crowd of enthusiastic spectators filled the streets with joy. The Interference Light Art Project, the first light art festival in Africa, was a success.
The genesis of this ambitious event began more than one year ago, when Bettina Pelz, a German curator dedicated to the use of light in fine art, animated a programme on this medium at the Goethe-Institut in Tunisia. In connection with the 2015 UNESCO International Year of Light, the workshop gathered artists, designers, curators and cultural managers from Tunisia and Germany. After the programme concluded, the bi-national team continued to work together on several ideas, including the Interference Light Art Project.
The first thing they needed to find was the artists. “Even though the festival was set to be an international event, we wanted to feature as many local artists as possible,” explains Pelz, “when we started searching for them, we quickly realised that there were, in fact, several contemporary artists working with light in the country, and excellent ones! However, their work was not made visible, neither on the Internet nor by cultural institutions.” The project, which was first imagined as a medium-scale event featuring 20 artists, soon developed into a much more important exhibition, gathering together 45 artists, one-quarter of whom were Tunisian, another quarter were German and the rest comprised several nationalities, including French, American and Russian.
The second thing they needed to find was the location. From the start, Interference Tunis set out to be a public event in a public space. As such, Bettina Pelz teamed up with Aymen Gharbi, an artist, architect and cultural producer living and working in the Tunis Medina. His network and knowledge of the neighbourhood provided the team with the best sites for the artworks, as well as local partners to help them out. Everything was set to start planning the event.
The curatorial duo put together a team of 150 volunteers, aged 15 to 35 years, coming from all social or professional backgrounds. They studied the basics of cultural project management through workshops and classes while having the opportunity to put their learning into practice by handling different tasks connected to the festival, from communication to team coordination. “As this was a no-budget project, everyone contributed,” recalls Gharbi, “neighbours also came out to bring cables and cooked food for the volunteers. It was a real community-building experience.”
After months of hard work, the production phase of the festival opened at the end of August with workshops, talks and conferences on the role of contemporary art in today’s society, and the use of light as an artistic material, medium or metaphor. An excellent introduction to the exhibition which started on September 1st.
Every night, 4 000 people walked through the streets and alleys of the Medina to discover mesmerising artworks in familiar places, such as Ramadan Bey Square or Bir Lahjar Square, and historic buildings, such as Dar Ben Achour or Dar Lasram, as well as other sites in ruins. “The reception of the public went far beyond our expectations,” rejoices Gharbi, “people were very excited by the artworks. Moreover, it triggered discussions and exchanges, which involved the audience, artists, curators and producers: exactly what we were hoping for.”
Among the artworks displayed, spectators could see, for instance, Illusions of the Medina an installation from the German collective Xenorama, which had settled in Dar Sharif, a long-abandoned construction site of a former noble’s residence. The projection was installed in the courtyard on a surface partly covered by decorative tiles. Some of them had disintegrated while others had been removed, revealing different layers of textures on the wall. Visitors’ shadows were cast onto the raised surface, stimulating the appearance of layers into motions, accompanied by various kinds of ambient sound. Their bodies turned into a source of light, shadow, sound and movement, motivating them to experiment with the atmosphere of the magical building.
Light is an incredible medium to allow the public's interaction with the artworks and the transmission of poetic and introspective paradigms. To give another example, the installation by the Tunisian artists Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri, explored the depths of our memory. Their piece, Vide-mémoire, was installed in the remains of the ancient library of Kishlet el-Morjani, which was built by Hammuda Pacha in 1809. The artists divided the place in a criss-cross pattern of blue lights, leaving dark empty spaces between them, with spectators invited to look at the installation through a tiny peephole. The combined graphic and physical experience allowed them to convey the idea of a deteriorating memory, which loses its mass over time, retaining only a few of its original elements.
The Interference Light Art Project was presented as the edition 00 of a festival which intends to develop over the next few years, thanks to the incredible network of professionals and enthusiastic amateurs created in the course of this first event. The location and contour of the next edition are yet to be defined. One thing is sure: the Interference Festival is shining a new light on contemporary art in Tunisia.
Born in Paris, France. After studying contemporary history in London, she works as an independent journalist and filmmaker.
International Light Art Project Tunis
1 - 4 September 2016
Medina of Tunis
Bettina Pelz and Aymen Gharbi