Post Institutional Stress Disorder (PISD) - Part II
Podcast with: Engy Mohsen, Mohamed Al Bakeri and Sarah Bahgat.
Sarah Bahagt: This can actually be a good entry point to ask you about your management style within the collective, since you are five members, how do you handle decision making? How do you also ensure that there isn't one singular person who is constantly managing, whilst others don't have much of a say? This is what I meant by management style and it's important to think about it.
Mohamed Al Bakeri: Engy, go ahead.
Engy Mohsen: I believe we discussed this at the very beginning, because as a matter of fact this was a question we came across in a grant application … We came up with a strategy of two types of decisions that don't have the same weight. If it is a very fateful decision like adding a new member to K-oh-llective, that would need an unanimous decision, meaning that it can't go ahead if one disagrees. It would lead to major negotiation processes where we sit together and try to reach conviction. As for minor decisions, like what time we hold our weekly meetings or whether we talk online or in person, these are decided based on majority votes. So for example, let's say one decides that today we will post about a said topic on social media and the majority agrees, the members opposing that decision support it since most votes are with. A big part of this ease is the fact that we had a good relationship between us as a foundation, that is built upon mutual respect. We know how to hear each other out, and we know our different personalities, flaws, who is intolerant to what, who is calmer and can guide through hurdles etc. And so this collective didnt come from nowhere, and our relationship isn't based on K-oh-llective. On the contrary, it was a personal relationship and friendship that flourished into a collective.
Sarah: That is great and it makes me think about what you asked me; who is really responsible for making decisions? Because if it's an institution, there is of course a director and a team, meaning there are times where decisions can be consulted and taken by the majority. In the end however there is always one person that the decision is reported to, whereas in your case you all consult and report to one another, which makes the format you explained suitable. When I think of it, this format doesn’t exist in Egypt or at least for now. I mean, I think of “Nile Sunset Annex” or “CIC”, but at the end of the day they turned into institutions, so is that something you are considering? We are just thinking out loud of course but do you guys think that at some point instead of having all meetings online, you could group in one place, be based there and set up a space? Did you think about this? Any of these ideas?
Engy: Bakeri, go ahead.
Bakeri: Okay I will start with the last question you asked. I mean we do discuss what we envision the collective to be in three, four, five years in order to understand where we are heading and how to get there. Having a physical space would definitely make it easier for us in many aspects; we would be able to run activities that require people to gather in one place. That would open possibilities of working on exchange projects, residencies, etc., and so no one will deny that there is a huge benefit to having a physical space if this is the great ambition.
Engy: We still don't know though if this is something that we can implement easily, since we are currently based in four different countries and somehow constantly on the move, whether for studies, artistic residencies, exhibitions, etc. And so we don’t know what that space would be. I mean if we one day decide to have a space, it won't be for our personal benefit but for the benefit of others. This is a core concept within our collective, that our individual practices have nothing to do with K-oh-llective, instead we are trying to create a support network. This space would be thought of in the same way, to provide some form of support through it.
Bakeri: But also a decision like this will affect other things, for instance let's say this space will be in Egypt, who is actually based there? I’m not there, Engy might not be there next year, and suddenly in a few years we might find that none of us are actually based in Egypt permanently. It is therefore a big decision, responsibility and commitment.
Sarah: I think in my opinion that along with the resources that you offer, what is needed and would be useful in the scene at the moment is mentorship programmes.
Sarah: Yes, programmes to guide either emerging artists or cultural workers, and I feel that the collective offers this to those who need it. This is actually what I wish existed when I started out, whether templates, budgets, guides to grants application but also long-term tasks that require thorough planning.
Bakeri: Yes and when you think about it, it is these simple aids that aren’t accessible and as a result we find ourselves wasting a lot of time to find useful information, when they should be easy to find, get me?
Engy: Rania always says, things are out there but they are scattered, and what we do is gather them in one place. I also think we are all obsessed with the idea of collecting or creating lists; to do lists, list of opportunities, lists of documents needed for applications and so on.
Sarah: But I also mean that the obsession with having a physical space for an institution isn't always the best idea or the most useful, because one can drown in a sea of bureaucracy that has to do with preparing the place itself and its paperwork etc,
Bakeri: Yes exactly.
Sarah: And so it can be virtual space but provide useful information that artists or art practitioners lack and are in need of, and at the same time it allows people to work remotely, which I think makes it easier no?
Bakeri: Yes exactly.
Sarah: You have been together for a year now, correct?
Engy: Yes we have about a month left and it would be a year since we launched our website.
Sarah: Okay, and if I may ask, do you feel that your evaluation of the first year, or maybe you haven't done this yet, do you feel that you have achieved and fulfilled your initial goals? I know you mentioned in the first episode of your podcast that you have big ambitions involving a space or residency etc., but did you meet your fundamental aims? or were there things you didn't account for that ended up taking longer than usual etc.? I mean what is your assessment for the first year of the collective?
Engy: We started with very ambitious goals and I think I can say that we succeeded in achieving most of the needs that we aspired to. But we also learned a lot of things along the way, as we couldn't foresee how they would take place nor how much time it would require to be completed. For instance, we would decide we want to talk to Sarah for a podcast, we are five human beings and each of us has a packed schedule, and the people we contact, whether to write or guests on our podcast also have busy schedules. As you said at the start, cultural workers have the flexibility to move based on the factors that change around them. This is something we started to get used to with time, and we were then able to create a flow different to what we expected. An example of this is the language, the idea that we offer a platform that is intended to be accessible to all artists in the Arab world, but most of the content we produce is in English.
Engy: But we also asked ourselves if we fall into a certain economic system. The language we use when applying for grants is almost always English except for very few occasions. From there we started thinking about aspects related to language and time, what kind of repeated content we present, and how we can take this accumulation of understanding and experience, and implement it the next year. We aim to turn it into a little pilgrimage, where the project has a clear beginning and end with clear outputs, but eventually takes the same format and offers the same type of content that is critical writing. One of the ambitions that we want to bring in the coming year is to work with more artists, because as we stand, most of our guests are either curators, writers or cultural managers. We feel it is also important that we create discourses related to artistic practices, but we don’t want to be marginalizing the artists themselves, which means that it is important we begin to engage with artistic practices.
Sarah: An advice I would give you to help divide roles and responsibilities, which isn’t only limited to members of the collective, and is something I consider when working with artists/writers, is to establish who is responsible for what, when and the type of relationship. It would be even better to have a manifesto for planning and organization. I mean, it is still likely to face unexpected scenarios and situations but when every member knows their role, what it entails and what is expected from them, it helps the overall flow.
Engy: I think we are trying to do this in a clear way, where within our collective, our roles are divided and each one has a responsibility. This doesn’t mean that I have to work all the time, and that the rest if they have time and are available could chip in, but we have divided responsibilities. They aren't roles, they are responsibilities. And the truth is, we had a lot of trial and error, we made many mistakes and we learned a lot, but what you are talking about is of course very important. I think the big problem for us is the idea of schedules, and how we manage time, and who has the opportunity to do something quickly and who can take months, weeks and days for them to get the job done.
Sarah: As you said in the beginning, there is an issue of precarity all the time. It has to do with the fact that we are in Egypt, and with the pandemic, but I want to go back to the point of output. There is something that has always fascinated me, which is that you aren’t outcome based, you don’t need tangible and clear results, a clear product out of this project. Whereas in my job for example, with institutions, I would usually have to work for six months in order to have an exhibition, a concert or a show, and that will be the measure of success or the goal of the job that we all worked towards. So my question for you is, how do you determine your productivity if it isn’t a podcast episode or a written text? how do you decide that in the said month you would produce x? Do you ask yourselves if you should do a restructuring, for example, for the group or for the content that you are providing for the next period?
Bakeri: Should I answer this one, Engy? Okay so there is a criteria for measuring the engagement with a podcast or a text, or which and how many pages on the website are being visited more, meaning that traffic is an important indication. This is a very, very, very important measure as it is clear, concise and we can monitor and review it weekly or monthly. What we discovered after we started, and what concerns us now however is longevity, or the idea of being able to continue doing what we do for as long as we can. We have this internal decision that even if our budget is tight, we don’t want to ask anyone to do a free job, even if the money offered is symbolic. It would still be an expression of gratitude, even though our project requires money, and the fund we took is limited and relatively small to the scope of work we do. It requires us to do many tasks in-house so we can invest the money in the contributors, running costs, the online presence , and so on. This is one of the prominent problems we are facing at the moment, and it has a lot to do with the fact that we aren’t an institution, nor that we are individuals applying for a grant to produce. Our model isn't very common and might be hard to categorize it.
Engy: Yes, not all institutions support collectives, so we're stuck somewhere in the middle. There are however institutions that support collectives, but very few.
Bakeri: Exactly, that’s what makes it a bit challenging.
Sarah: There are also institutions that would offer to support only two out of five people, for a travel grant or something of this nature.
Bakeri: Exactly, to be honest what we are currently concerned with right now is how the collective can sustain itself by itself, and to generate the resources it needs without the total dependence on grants. This is because relying on production grants is risky and never guaranteed.
Sarah: Yes and the process is too long. If you want to ensure that the collective will keep going for the next three years or so, you would at least need to apply for a grant every three months, which of course takes time, effort and energy
Bakeri: It does indeed
Engy: I want to say something about assessing success and criterias, because I know that Bakeri talked about quantitative measures of success, like how many times the podcast has been played, text views, social media engagement and so on. There are also the people that approach us saying how much they have benefited from our opportunities page, or others who send us emails asking for opinions/feedback on proposals and portfolios. And so we feel that this is what we humbly do, addressing someone’s needs even if it is very simple.
Sarah: For sure!
Engy: This is very reassuring for us as this is exactly what we aimed to achieve, to feel that what we provide is beneficial to others. We had been sharing this internally between us, but the attempt was to expand our reach to include more people.
Bakeri: I want to say something very important, we never tell anyone what to do or claim the position of an advisor, quite the contrary, the core of the collective is to learn from one another. We want to talk to each other, because we believe there aren't enough discussions around the most basic issues in our field. So we thought of how to best present a portfolio, how to enhance the material, that is why we always ask the audience to contribute to our website on whether they have suggestions for better templates, etc. We function as an open library or an open source, and we review contributions then add it to the platform, and so it isn’t strictly our input only, do you get what I mean?
Sarah: Yes, and I also think this is a measure of success, which has a lot to do with the title we thought of for the episode (PISD), which is what I wanted to talk about. I don't know the exact translation in Arabic, but it is short for Post Institutional Stress Disorder, and it is obviously a word play on PTSD, which is.....
Bakeri: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder…
Sarah: Exactly, it was the title of an exhibition that took place in 2018 in Uros, Denmark. All of the works presented, ranging from videos to installations, were discussing the relationship between the institution, the public and the artists themselves. The obsession with productivity, success and having to produce work to be exhibited right after a grant is awarded were also addressed in the show. It explored questions that we are all involved with in some way, regardless of our backgrounds and interests. This is something we also saw post the pandemic at length, the subject of many artistic activities. Another thing came to mind just now; Singapore Art Fatigue, an initiative which took place in Singapore that spoke about feelings of stress and fatigue, and the obsession with organizing exhibitions in order to compensate for this period of stagnation, once life went back to normal post pandemic. It also considered the psychological state and pressures caused by this.
Engy: Ok, I would like to thank all who listen to us and of course thank you Sarah! We are very happy that we spoke with you today, especially as we don’t always have the chance to be asked and questioned about how we work and why we do it. As Bakeri said, our goal first and foremost, is to communicate and converse in order to learn from one another, as we don’t think we do enough of that. I mean not just as a collective, but in general, artists don’t have much space for dialogue, and so we thoroughly enjoy the small moments where we can pause, think and re-visit a lot of things that we often pass through without taking time to reflect.
Bakeri: Thank you Sara, thank you Engy.
Sarah: Thank you!
Sarah Bahgat is a Cairo-based cultural manager with extensive experience in the fields of film, literature, visual arts and music. While curating the public programs at Egypt’s flagship art institution Townhouse Gallery (2014-2018), she initiated the Townhouse Salons, a monthly series of literary conversations held with artists, writers, cultural historians and critics. Following that period and over the past three years, Sarah was working as a project manager at the arts and culture unit of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Initiative (DEDI), an intergovernmental organisation established to promote cross-cultural exchanges between Egypt and Denmark. Her position as a film programmer at the Netherlands- Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) allowed her to pursue her passion for independent audio-visual productions. At the moment, Sarah is working independently with artists and institutions on developing a diversified portfolio of cultural programs that are critical, relevant and socially engaged.