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Peripheral and Other Stories

By Clare Davies

That place is
different/ One would finally be relieved there/ And one will never feel let
down/ Or that he is persecuted/ Or that he’s subjected to unfairness/ What is
there is beyond the imagination of people.

A surprising density
characterizes the urban and social margins of Hala Elkoussy’s Peripheral
Stories
. A personal and cultural subconscious evokes what it is that
lies ‘beyond the imagination of people’ and disorientation offers an approach
to a knowledge without authority. The film operates in the mode of a dream,
producing a symbolic excess that offers multiple readings and disrupts the
production of stable meaning. While it is Cairo’s topographical periphery, the
frays of an insatiable megalopolis, that appear to be at the center of this
work, it is the piece’s performance of a peripheral consciousness that suggests
itself most strongly in connection to the term ‘peripheral’. Introduced as a
series of stories, the allusions to narrative coming in and out of focus
throughout the film create a framework for seducing the viewer into a
suspension of both disbelief and belief.

Elkoussy created 25
‘stories’ that unfold within the span of the 28-minute film. There is little to
guide the viewer through the piece. The layers of voice (voice over), text
(subtitles), sound (music and background noise) and moving images
characterizing the film don’t necessarily correspond with each other and often
appear internally inconsistent. Time is above all, a function of a repetitive
movement and the cyclical re-appearance of characters and references, if only
for a moment and out of the corner of the eye. The artist’s interest in and repeated
experiences working with film extras has clearly informed her choices regarding
the hierarchy of roles; the weight often afforded to traditional main
characters is instead distributed prismatically across 75 peripheral dramatic
roles. The density and multiplication of narratives, characters and images
contribute to a heightening of a real that appears only to disappear as quickly
as it comes into focus, indicating an excess that can neither be folded back
into a consistent whole or prioritized so as to determine an ‘essential’. Instead,
excess is figured in terms of surface. Depth is transposed into a sequence of
landscapes flattened by their fleeting presence, as they pass by the window of
a microbus. Movement occurs along a horizontal axis, frequent use of wide angle
shots absorb vistas and people into a horizontal spread.

The film opens
with a view onto an expanse of new redbrick apartment buildings, a vision of
crudely finished low-income housing spreading towards the horizon. Developments
in Mokattam, El Warraq, 6 October City, Sheikh Zayed, Bassous, Kerdassa, new
sub-cities off the Ring Road: to many Cairenes these sites are simultaneously
familiar and anonymous, reminiscent of a floating periphery that seems to slip
in and out of vision and what might be constituted as a cultural consciousness.
To others, this peripheral topography represents if not a center, then a point
of departure, left daily to travel in the direction of socio-economic and
geographic hubs. The microbus that appears throughout the film both in visual
and textual references disappears only to become the vehicle for the viewer’s
gaze – a peripatetic point of view from this ubiquitous Cairene mode of cheap
transportation.

While microbuses are
often used to shuttle between Cairo’s interiors and exteriors, this film never
arrives at a ‘center’; locations, destinations, neighborhoods remain defined by
a passage along their outskirts. Similarly, the periphery never emerges as a
reality subject to translation through the various iterations of central
discourses – among the usual suspects: gender, race, class. The burden of
producing an anthropological meaning or an account of place, where artistic
practice is understood as a vehicle for uncovering the reality of a so-called
peripheral position is eschewed. Instead, the film unfolds various languages,
various references and possible readings simultaneously.

The stories that
emerge throughout are re-imagined/recomposed from interviews, as well as from
texts appearing in advertisements, and gleaned from the gossip pages of
newspapers. As a result, the abruptly sketched characters and plots resonate
with a documentary voice, as well as the currency of an anti-ideal (and in a
couple instances, an ideal) used to define the borders of cultural normativity.
The symbolics are recalled fitfully, outside of the discursive contexts that
would complete and clarify their familiar meanings. This device constitutes an
unhinging of significance from its usual systems of articulation, as in a dream
where the everyday becomes a language with which to intimate the existence of
that which surpasses the limits of what can be known or seen.

A shared non-linguistic symbolics particular to contemporary Cairene
contexts is incorporated without explanation or indication to viewers who
wouldn’t recognize, for example, snatches of a popular Shadia song from the
seventies, or the floriferous dresses of the ululating women as common
upholstering material, or the khayameya material functioning equally as
a temporary shelter to house wedding and funeral celebrations. Even viewers
familiar with these references are often left to interpret their often poetic
use in relation to other elements in the film.

A disembodied voice speaks throughout, layering a note of
consistency on top of the densely structured visuals. Characters appear
interchangeable and the singular voice narrating multiple characters adds to
the difficulty in parsing each from the other. At the same time, this voice
produces incongruities internally, switching for example, between first and
third person in the same sentence, and in relationship to the image of the
implied narrator that often appears on screen. The voice takes on the authority
that it would otherwise be lacking without any overarching narrative framework.
In the same way that the narrative voice has the ability to alter an exterior
reality and a daydreaming boy conjures a candyfloss kingdom from a bird, the
voice serves as a driving force linking a succession of stories, which don’t
appear to follow any so-called rational progression. The stories referred to in
the title of the film lack clear beginnings and endings – are frayed at the
edges; without the possibility of confining their significance or placing them
securely in relation to a particular discourse they lose an authoritative
reading. There are no interstices but rather a suspension of narrative.

The viewer comes away
without the certainty of any gained insights. Instead, disorientation functions
as a practice of representation that ‘blinds’ the viewer and situates them
between worlds. In an early passage a woman recounts her near-death experience
in front of a microbus, ‘Then I went into a bright light. The air was clean I
didn’t want to go’, and the screen goes white. This blinding is a form of
sensual and symbolic overexposure wherein borders are blown out, blending into
a space devoid of any meaningfulness, or alternately, an excess of meaning. Though
this disorientation appears as an extreme at certain moments in the piece, it
operates along a continuum, which allows at less intense levels, for new
frameworks for the production of meaning.

The series of still
photographs that constitutes the film’s own periphery offers a different kind
of space of engagement for the viewer. Emotionally charged, large-scale
landscape photographs appear alongside the film. They provide a static
representation of the psychological space connected to the socio-economic and
geographic periphery depicted in the film. Printed on wallpaper material, the
pieces suggest both the lurid plastic Swiss alpine scenes that are to be found
in homes, restaurants and cafes and which appear twice in the film itself, as
well as fine art traditions of landscape painting and photography. Dwarfing the
viewer while failing to create a complete environment, these pieces are more
tributes to a romantic ideal of place than convincing representations of the
real.

Elkoussy’s new photographic
installation is an addition to the Peripheral exhibition. Photographs portraying
many of the cheap objects of desire to be found in Cairo’s open-air markets are
arranged in a grid and mounted in a large scale light box. The piece blinks
erratically on and off in blues, greens and reds like the rented strings of
colored lights signaling festivities in Cairo streets. Shot individually and
with careful lighting, the objects are portrayed in the language of
sophisticated commercial product-shots. In some cases the objects are intended
to facilitate a desired change in the buyer, i.e. clip-on hair extensions. In
others, they are simulacra of desired identities that are themselves a kind of
social currency, i.e. Barbie-style dolls, a child’s officer’s cap. Often they
are both. At the same time, the installation repeats the assumption underlying
these objects’ existence; these objects are desirable in and of themselves as
inauthentic objects.

The theme of desire
highlighted in the photographic installation brings the role of desire in the
film into focus. It is a desire for a transformation of circumstances that is
repeated throughout Peripheral Stories as a cipher for the periphery as
a utopian space. ‘That place is different.,’ comments one of the
characters. It is the powerful grasp of this desire that provides a subtext to
the ongoing disorientation and allows for the complication of our belief in
both reality and illusion.

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