Open Spectrum – February 13 at New York Live Arts

Photo by Danny Willems

Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

On Monday night, New York Live Arts kicked off the 2016 Live Ideas festival, MENA/Future, which is devoted to a generation of artists whose creative networks across socio-political divides reveal a diverse and future-oriented vision for the Middle East North African region.

I was in attendance for the opening event, described as ‘An Evening With Dr. Bassem Youssef and Rula Jebreal’.  I’ll be totally honest – I didn’t know much about either speaker, and entered the room at CUNY’s Graduate Center almost totally without context for what I was about to see.  Which, actually, was kind of amazing.  The auditorium was packed with mostly enthusiastic young people, brimming with excitement, erupting in spontaneous applause when Dr. Youssef merely entered the auditorium to sit in the first row prior to being formally introduced.  In contrast to the rather academic and studious expectations I have of things called ‘keynote speeches’ in general, there was instead a dynamic, rollicking energy pulsing through the room.  Okay, I thought to myself, so who is this guy anyway?

They rolled a six-minute intro video to open the event, from which I learned that Dr. Youssef is, in essence, a Jon Stewart-like Egyptian satirist who built, starting in his basement with just a chair, table, and single camera, a political satire show that would eventually grow into a televised series with more than 40 million viewers (and more than 184 million combined combined views on Youtube).  The show was terminated (in effect, banned) in 2014 due to overwhelming pressures on both the show and the airing channel.

Then, after a few brief intros, Dr. Youssef himself took the stage and the crowd went nuts.  And despite my only having a very rudimentary ‘culled-from-reading-the-Times’ understanding of Egyptian politics and what happened there before, during, and after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, I found myself in the middle of a sometimes bristling and always high-stakes conversation about the future of Egypt, the Middle East, and how this might affect the rest of the world.  

I share this experience not so much to offer a response to the event itself, but to rouse and encourage you to – despite perhaps not having a deep personal connection or comprehensive knowledge of the MENA region and its politics – attend the upcoming Open Spectrum Community Dialogue series on February 13th at 5 p.m.  

I might go so far as to imply that it is our responsibility, as artists working in America, to both understand and bear witness to the urgent inquiries of those working under vastly different political and cultural conditions.  On Saturday, the cast and creators of “Archive” – a piece by Israeli artist Arkadi Zaides which examines the inquiry: “What is the potential for violence embedded in each individual body?”; and Les Ballets C de la B’s “Badke” – a display of passion for life and dance as a form of resistance featuring a cast of Palestinians, join cultural and political journalist Alisa Solomon in discussion and reflection on the source and resonance of their work amidst one of the most challenging political situations in the world today, and the artist’s vision toward understanding their role in society.  Please join us!

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