Co-curated by Pittsburgh-based founder of the Firefly Tunnels Project, Tavia la Follette, Sites of Passage continues the Mattress Factory’s legacy of stimulatingly immersive work by creating boundary-surmounting experiences made for cultural exchange. An innovative cross-cultural collaboration between accomplished artists in Egypt and the United States, the Firefly Tunnels Project consists of a series of installation and performance-based workshops and ongoing exchanges that fosters dialogue between the artists, their artwork, and their respective audiences. Given the temporary nature of both performance and installation, documentation and internet circulation is crucial to the talented group’s development and exchange of ideas; la Foyette calls the internet a “system of tunnels that doesn’t believe in the barriers of countries or the obstruction of segregated tongues.” In conjunction with this network, Sites of Passage expands on the Project’s endeavors as a new kind of “tunnel” through which American audiences are exposed firsthand to work that was made to be experienced.
The physical, immediate nature of both installation and performance art make them great mediums with which to traverse cultural boundaries. Though with varying degrees of success, the work communicates complicated issues faced in Egypt by appealing directly to our most human of qualities: emotions and senses. While Noha Redwan and Matt J. Hunter’s subway installation featured in Over My Dead Body (2011) failed to incite the emotion and activity present in its accompanying sound piece by Mark Bellaire and Holly Thuma, for example, creating a somewhat static lack of emotional resolve, Swarm (2011), by Wendy Osher and Nouran Sherif integrates interaction and sound to create a robust experience. The kinetic piece steals audiences’ gazes with the juxtaposition of its gentle, soft, subdued material against its rapid, violent motion, enhanced by the voices of rioters over a newscast. The work’s almost frighteningly tornado-like movement obscures the images printed onto its beautifully flowing silk evoking confusion, speed, femininity, ambivalence, and chaos, all while expressing the nature of the content encompassed instead of merely reciting it. Pieces like Swarm emphasize the qualities of art that neither writing, nor speech, and not even photography nor video can emulate, qualities that tend to shine in exhibitions at the Mattress Factory, but have increased importance given the purpose of the work.
Another important aspect of the work was its informative quality, something that I spent time evaluating the nature of. In light of the Arab Spring—still attracting the global gaze due to its convoluted legacy and the recent death of Moammar Gadhafi—one can assume going into the exhibition the work would be heavy with complex political content the typical, mildly-informed American might not immediately understand. I was relieved to find a fat, wordy packet of didactic information, featuring an artist statement for almost every piece in the exhibition and artist biographies for all participating artists.
After seeing the exhibition once without having read the provided material, I found an interesting relationship between my uninformed interpretations and emotional responses, and the artists’ original inspirations. Mark Bellaire’s haunting Vainglorious Stammering (2011), an installation that took full advantage of the Mattress Factory bathroom by transforming it into a digital tomb, effectively referred to Egypt’s famous legacy of spectacular tombs using a contemporary medium. Its most surprisingly charming quality was the way the space communicated disaster by leaving its contents sprawled across the floor, the projector toppled sideways over a pile of towels and totally exposed, like a personal mess within the dark confines of a cave. After immersing myself in the idea of the tomb as a personal space, reading Ballaire’s articulation about the way Egyptian tombs are built to glorify a solitary leader, and this idea in relationship to the reign of the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expanded upon my original feelings towards the piece. The background material for the pieces, sparse for some works and dense for others, was enlightening and brought captivating new insight and information to American audiences that may not have surfaced without the unique cultural exchange of the Firefly Tunnels Project. On the other hand, I feel this information would disservice its function if it replaced the experience of the work itself.
The immersive, intrusive, and awe-inspiring installations and performances present in Sites of Passage effectively communicate emotion, time and place using visual, physical, auditory cues alone, inciting a pronounced curiosity in the American audiences it is geared toward. In this way they fulfill their role as traversing geographic, cultural, and lingual boundaries not just through the Firefly Tunnels of the internet, but by communicating directly with inherent human commonalities the way art is meant to.
La Follete, Tavia. “About the Project.” Firefly Tunnels Project. 2010, online. 25 October 2011. http://fireflytunnels.net/projekt
Mattress Factory, Ltd. “Sites of Passage.” Current Exhibitions. 2011, online. 24 October 2011. http://www.mattress.org/index.cfm?event=ShowExhibition&eid=101&c=Current