Crossing Borders with: Project Alo? An International Mobile Video Play

by Fatima Zahra El Filali

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon.)

Here we are experimenting with Middle East-based and US-based artists in the field of theater using a not so traditional medium: video. This time, it isn’t for live streaming or recording a play. This time, artists are working together without the need for a visa or a passport or unpleasant TSA encounters. They are “talking” to each other via videos captured by smartphones. From my pre-dialogue perspective, I saw the use of video as closer to documenting a performance than recording it, not quite an improv on video, but still an unscripted recorded dialogue.

Project Alo? is our attempt at eliminating borders separating artists with readily available means: smartphone captured video. Golden Thread Productions has been producing plays from and about the Middle East since 1996. Therefore, it has been engaging audiences and artists scattered throughout the United States and the MENA region. Keeping this global network active and alive can be challenging for financial, political and geographical barriers. Physically crossing borders became even harder and more dangerous in the past few tumultuous years since the Arab Spring. Project Alo? was created to counter those difficulties and enable artists to collaborate or at least communicate in a creative manner.

We started shaping the project in the fall of 2013. We hired a small team of facilitators to help with the project. To stay true with the spirit of Project Alo?, we begun meeting through video-chat. After a few weeks of debating and deciding to what extents will or can Golden Thread be involved with the artists’ collaborations while still providing a terrain for international exchange, the project started to finally come to life. We created a protocol to follow for artists, facilitators and coordinators.

By this time, we had a solid framework to build on and we could begin to play. We created 5 teams of 2 artists, one in the US and one in the Middle East, and a Golden Thread facilitator. Each artist is to create a one minute video to be sent to the second artist who will then respond with a one minute video. All videos are shot by a smartphone. The exchange goes for 5 rounds until we end up with a ten minute video dialogue per team. The facilitator assists in the exchange and provides a set of parameters for each round. These parameters are there to guide the dialogue and provide a sense of uniformity throughout the whole  project.

My artistic background is not limited to theater, however my theater experience is limited. I brought with me a certain naivety to Project Alo?. I wasn’t concerned with its boundaries and how it is defined in the field of theater. Yet, the question of: How is this Theater? kept resurfacing at meetings. I was a bit shocked that it was even a concern. When we aim at creating collaborations in order to have self sustaining artistic relationships, does the medium really matter? Clearly, the theater aspect of our project is very significant. We are a theater company and we want to connect theater artists. I still thought that bounding theater to a physical stage -be it conventional or not- is a form of self-imposed restrictions. There is no blue print for Theater work. It brought me back years ago to Art school. Many students looked at using photoshop or even a projector as a cop-out. In reality, there is nothing wrong with using a readily available tool in order to execute your idea. Were the old masters against using rulers because a true artist should be able to draw a straight line?

I am an advocate for embracing new tools and expanding on how we define any discipline. It occurred to me that while we are trying to eliminate borders between artists, we might also be breaking the borders of theater. As blasphemous as it may sound to the purists, I think that taking Theater out of its usual realm is worth considering. While we might not be able to bring these artists together on the same stage, we are having them create together. Whether that will lead to a long term artistic relationship eventually resulting in full productions, or simply to a one-time ten minute video dialogue is up to them and mainly to the success of the exchange. Finding that sort of compatibility between artists is not an easy task. It is something we kept in mind when pairing up the artists. We focused mainly on their aesthetics and ethnic backgrounds in hopes to ease the communication.

A few excerpts from the dialogues translate the idea of crossing borders quite successfully. One of them is between Tracy Francis who is based in New York City and Rami Sameh in Baghdad, Iraq. The given parameters were ‘nature’ and ‘electricity’. Tracy’s submission was of an industrial area by the water. Rami’s response was also of a similar looking area. Playing these two videos back to back was reminiscent of the classic mirror exercise. The two videos are so disturbingly similar that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other starts. This excerpt of their dialogue literally eliminates borders between both submissions and in a way between New York City and Baghdad.

As a project manager, I had the chance to look at all the videos from all artists as they came in. Comparing the submissions with my initial expectations was eye-opening and amusing. Everybody’s vision is different, however some aspects seem to be recurrent throughout the exchanges. My love for figurative artwork lead me to expect to see the participants in their exchange. That was rarely the case. Most artists, abstained from using their bodies in their videos. I am in no way a proponent of the selfie-craze, but I have used myself in my own work, most of the time because it is easier than finding models, actors.. etc. I wondered: is it the experimental aspect of the project that made the participants refrain from visually including themselves? Could it be due to the provided parameters? Furthermore, there was no literal dialogue. Nobody recorded themselves talking to their partner. I originally thought it would be a prevalent recurrence since it is a literal interpretation of dialogue.

Ironically, none of the videos came with implicit political messages. One can even go as far as saying that they are void of political content. Initially, one of the main concerns raised during the first phase of Project Alo?, was: How can we keep the anonymity, the safety… etc of the participants because of political reasons? Funny enough, we were guilty of the same assumptions we want to challenge as artists who identify with the Middle East. Not everything involving the area has to involve politics. It is almost embarrassing to admit, knowing that I was born and raised in the MENA region. Oops.

If you’re at the Conference, check out our panel discussion on Friday at 10:45 am. You will get the chance to speak to some of the participating artists and view some videos.

For more details about Project Alo?:

Fatima Zahra El Filali is the Alo? Project Manager at Golden Thread Productions. As a visual artist, her work has been shown at the Regis Art Center in the University of Minnesota as well as in MCAD, among other venues. As an actress, Fatima has worked with Pangea World Theater and Mizna in Minneapolis. She is now a Web Science graduate student at the University of San Francisco. Born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, Fatima received her BA in Art, and BS in Computer Science from St Cloud State University in 2009. She is fluent in Arabic, French and English.