In Conversation with Mariem Guellouz

Mariem is a dancer, choreographer, and director of Cartage Choreographic Days.
Born and living in Tunis, Tunisia. Locked down in Paris, France.

‘I remember how we were together all day long and how streets were crowded all the night, the sound of the music, restaurants, coffee shops were open, people in the streets buying sweets and looking for Aid outfits. It was a moment of joy and I miss it so much.’

I met Mariem in 2018 at the first edition of Cartage Choreographic Days to which she invited me. Her diligent efforts in programming and careful execution the festival were instantly visible and made me think about the challenges and opportunities  of administering a nationally supported event of this size. Her programming also gave me the opportunity to personally meet some great artist from the Arab world.
Although I am mostly familiar with her work with this festival, she is a prominent performer and researcher as well, focusing largely on the history and socio-anthropological aspects of various dances and corporal practices in the Arab world. I think our conversation has been merely a beginning of a channel of communication between us, which I hope will deepen from here on. If we want and if life helps…

This email correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Mariem Guellouz from May 5 to July 31 2020.

From: Fatih Genckal
To: Mariem Guellouz

Sent: Tuesday, 5 May 2020 16:11

Dear Mariem,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Mariem Guellouz 8 May 2020 17:34
I’m actually far from Tunis and from my family. I can’t come back to my country for now and somehow I think of all the refugee people who are stuck in borders or people living in a war. We can’t compare these tragic humanitarian situations to ours and even if we are in confinement we still very  previleged even if it’s very difficult especially for artists. So I think a lot and I try to find solutions with my festival team in Tunisia because the festival is postponed. Otherwise, I also dance a lot… I observed that many  my friends are offering online dance lessons or working on dance films; the imagination seems to be the best way to fight against anxiety.

Fatih Genckal 8 May 2020 20:28
Where are you right now? What are your thoughts on your festival and your work in general at this time of anxiety?

Mariem Guellouz 11 May 2020 00:18
I’m in Paris. Borders are close and I don’t know yet when I’ll be able to come back to Tunis. It’s quite an anxious situation. I communicate a lot with my team in Tunis, and we are discussing what could be done next June even if the festival is postponed. We share ideas, we try to spend time together. Last year, at this moment, I was in Tunis and It was also Ramadan. I remember how we were together all day long and how streets were crowded all the night, the sound of the music, restaurants, coffee shops were open, people in the streets buying sweets and looking for Aid outfits.  It was a moment of joy and I miss it so much. We were finalizing the last steps before the festival begening with stress but also a lot of love and happiness. This year everything has changed. I’m far and I don’t know what will the future of performances be. Will we be able to open theaters? Could we dance again close to the audience? How is the art future?

Fatih Gençkal 11 May 2020 20:19
Are you still thinking about doing something this coming June? Maybe something online? How tight is the confinement in Tunis? Maybe it would be possible to do some public space events with physical distance. I am thinking that the physical limits might actually bring about some interesting ideas in choreography. Of course the public health should always be the first priority.

Mariem Guellouz 13 May 2020 20:09
We are thinking about dance films and also about a digital platform and we’ll use social media to put in place a sort of dance dynamics but nothing can replace a dance on a stage. Even if the Virus is now controlled in Tunis and even if it is the lift of the lockdown, Tunisians still worried about the situation. The ministry won’t authorize any cultural event till the end of June. We are very concerned about this health issues and we don’t won’t to  take any risk or to put the audience or the artist in danger. You are right when you talk about inventing new forms of performing but could please explain what do you have in mind? How is the confinement on your side and are you optimitic about the future of dance in next months ? I fell like I can’t see further than these two months and we don’t know how things will be in septembre or october.

Fatih Gençkal 14 May 2020 15:00
Well, when you think of the restrictions, it brings about a certain spacial relationship: people should be 2 meters from each other and they should wear masks. No touching of any kind. I fell these restrictions can be used to build choreography in public spaces -if it is allowed of course. It can happen in different spaces in the city and people can watch from their balconies and windows. This could be one idea. But in a broader sense, I think we can always think of forms of communication that wasn’t there before, or something we didn’t realize by paying more attention to how things are. It is of course a negotiation with public authorities, too. On the other hand, as a festival director, of course it is hard to make plans as you have to consider many things as they change and you have responsibilities towards the artists and audiences. But maybe for the foreseeable future, things will be a little more spontaneous and experimental and we need to plan for that. What do you think? I’m just thinking out loud:) Do you think we have room to negotiate like this? Or is this an irresponsible idea?

Mariem Guellouz 16 May 2020 13:07
I think these are great ideas. We have to invent and to try new forms. I think the authorities have also to take responsibility. They always ask artists to find solutions and to adapt themselves to the crisis but I think that they have to propose solutions about the health crisis, to invest more in health research and in public medical centers. But this is another issue. For the next months we have to be careful because we can’t take any risk with the audience and with the artists but  if this situation continues, thinking about big public places and presenting smaller performances (solos, duos, trios) could be an alternative while we wait for the end of this crisis. For next June we are thinking for organizing webinars to discuss these issues and also we will be proposing to young choreographers a small video to present their bios and their artistic research. Do you think the audience will come if we open these spaces even if the are health restrictions ? We are feeling that the audience might not come because people are afraid and don’t want to take any risks. How can we work with the audience ? How can we reassure them and explain these new forms of performances?

Fatih Gençkal 16 May 2020 18:16
I think people won’t feel comfortable to come together in closed spaces in large numbers for a while, not for artistic events at least -for shopping, maybe :/ I, myself, wouldn’t anyway. That’s why I think we can accommodate them within the physical limitations to make sure it’s safe. I think arts institutions need a policy -in cooperation with authorities probably- for this to familiarize the public with new ways of attending and experiencing performances. It could actually be an interesting way to get more people interested in or curious about performing arts. I think this could be a way to go especially for societies who traditionally like to spend time outdoors, in public spaces etc. I can see this happening in Turkey especially in the warmer months, but it needs a vision and institutional collaboration to work effectively. Do you think it could work in Tunisia?

Mariem Guellouz 18 May 2020 14:24
We are now discussing with consultants from the Minister of Culture and they are thinking for example to invest historical and archeological spaces by filming performances in it. It’s a way to think dance outdoor and in the same time to enhance and promote the Tunisian patrimony but the audience will see the films on video so I’m thinking of why don’t we involve an audience and  invite them in these outdoor spaces? These are very large spaces so people can walk around to see the performances with respecting the health restrictions. I really like your idea of balcony and windows maybe we can think about sharing a moment of dance from Tunis to turkey’s street? What do you think? Dancing at the same time under windows in Tunisia and Turkey…

Fatih Gençkal 19 May 2020 14:24
This outdoor performance shooting sounds interesting. It can maybe be a window for other performances by other -independent- actors in outdoors spaces. And if you have a channel to influence the authorities, I think it’s definitely worth bringing out the idea of an audience. Tell me more about the sharing a moment of dance between Turkey and Tunis. What do you imagine? An online performance?

Mariem Guellouz 25 May 2020 19:15
Yes! I imagine an online performance where dancers in Turkey and in Tunis are performing in the same time under windows. It’s a way to create a creative line between countries even if bodies circulation is not allowed. We can think about it together. How dance can create link between people and how bodies are now facing the same problems in different countries. It could be great if dancers can prepare a choreography before this event and dance like if they were together.

Fatih Gençkal 26 May 2020 13:59
This could actually be a powerful gesture. Do you think we can create a project and do this with a budget so as to also support the artists in dialogue for their time and input? Our two festivals can do it as a joint project and look for funding maybe?

Mariem Guellouz 2 June 2020 19:25
Yes ! I think it could really be a powerful gesture and I’m trying to put in place this project and to discuss about it with my team. Lets try to find fundings to support artists. I’ll let you know very soon about it and if it is doable this could be a great collaboration between us.

Fatih Gençkal 3 Jun 2020 20:22
Great! I am looking forward to hearing from you then. Since monday, the government has loosened the lockdown and opened most businesses. From July on, theaters are supposed to be open! Nobody knows how and there is no preparation for it on the part of government so far. Things are happening quite quickly and somewhat hastily. We will see how things will go. I feel like life is going back to normal with a stretch film on things. How are things for you there?

Mariem Guellouz 15 Jun 2020 14:24
Sorry for this delay! I was sick but I feel better now. Yes! everything is going back to normal an borders are opening so I’ll be able to go to Tunis very soon. I think we can continue to think about our collaboration project even if the lockdown is an old story now. Maybe we can take time to look for funds and to put it in place for next year?

Fatih Gençkal 27 Jun 2020 13:03
Hello dear, I’m sorry but this email went to my trash for some reason! Facebook just reminded me that I was at your festival 2 years ago today. And how long-distance travel seems like a distant memory to me. Have you been back to Tunis finally? How are you dealing with the new situation concerning the pandemic? It’s funny you called it an old story. It totally feels that way to me as well. But it’s ghost is still haunting us.

Continued on Messenger

Fatih Gençkal 27 Jul 2020 10:16
Hello dear I haven’t heard from you. Did you get my email? How are you doing?

Mariem Guellouz 31 Jul 2020 13:22 (voice message)
Hello my dear, I’m so sorry. It’s a very complicated moment because I’m still in Paris. I didn’t know when I could go back to Tunis. It was a little bit complicated but now I know that I’m going there in August and I’m very happy. I think I will see all my team and we can discuss about our project. It would be really really good to talk with you. The mail exchanging was really interesting. I hope we can discuss very soon. So sorry about this delay. Kiss you.

Conversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

To share:

‘I remember how we were together all day long and how streets were crowded all the night, the sound of the music, restaurants, coffee shops were open, people in the streets buying sweets and looking for Aid outfits. It was a moment of joy and I miss it so much.’