How To Get Lost in a City: An Interview with Amira Hanafi

January 26, 2011 · Print This Article

Until very recently, Amira Hanafi lived in Chicago. Now she lives in Cairo. In both cities she makes a habit of walking, sometimes with others. It’s a deliberate kind of wandering, a determined getting lost-ness, and enough work comes out of her walking, that I have started to think of the city as her studio. Months ago a friend asked me the last time I went to my studio without a plan. I didn’t have answer. I always know what I am going to work on—which, perhaps, explains why when I do get lost in a city, I tend to panic. Getting lost (especially in Chicago where I’ve lived for several years) reads to me as an inner turmoil; something symptomatic of trouble. I get lost as result of inward distraction. Amira on the other hand gets lost because she is so present to a moment. Because she celebrates that lostness—enjoying the accompanying curiosity, what I feel is generally accompanied with a studied awareness of one’s environment. The walk is a kind of aimless action, in which one must remain open, in order to discover what is so easily overlooked.

Caroline Picard: Will you describe your experience walking through a city?

Amira Hanafi: I think of walking as reading, of the city as text. Walking sets a pace for gathering and interpreting information. The movement is like reading a book—one can linger over passages or skim quickly through them, mark a place to return to, or close the book. One of my first walking projects in Chicago was Maps of the Order of Signs, in which I walked over two one-mile segments of Armitage Avenue, reading aloud all the text I saw into a handheld recorder. I transcribed this text and treated it in different ways; I performed various analyses in order to “decode” its meaning. The project resulted in a collection of texts, drawings, and prints, which I exhibited here in Chicago. It was a very literal interpretation of walking as reading. It was a good start, leading to walking as one of my central modes of art-making. I use walking as performance as well as a method of research or collection, gathering material with which to document the city.

CP: How do different cities respond to your walks? Do you change your walking strategy depending on what city you happen to inhabit?

AH: So far, I’ve done walking projects in two cities—Chicago and Cairo, Egypt. Certainly these walks are very different from each other. There is a great deal more life on the street in Cairo than in Chicago, so far more personal encounters happen. Also, because it is a very polluted and overcrowded city with poor infrastructure, the number of hours one can spend walking in Cairo is more limited. Appearing to be a foreigner, I am much more conspicuous in Cairo than in Chicago. In Chicago, the walks and accompanying conversations are more focused on infrastructure, urban planning, and the impact of the law, whereas in Cairo the streets are more immediately shaped by the people who inhabit them. I would love to have more cities to compare, but I believe that the best way for me to make intelligent art is through sustained engagement—by dwelling. That’s why I live in Cairo now.

CP: What is your relationship to the situationist dérive?

AH: I began using Guy Debord’s Theory of the Situationist Dérive in 2008, as a strategy for reading the city. I was drawn to his idea that one can detect “flows” in the city by walking without a plan. I concertedly experimented with the strategy by conducting a series of nine dérives in Chicago in the fall of 2009, inviting others to join me. I used it again in my project Cairo On the Length, a series of 28 walks, with a different person each time, over the course of four months in Cairo. As a method, the dérive can be a bit messy, but it is an excellent way to get to know a city without following an established path. More recently, I have returned to performing planned walks, such as my Walk Under the Interstate in Chicago in fall 2010. A planned walk offers more focus on a particular aspect of a city, and I feel that is more appropriate once I have acquired a general sense of the city and can pinpoint those aspects that interest me most.

CP: How did you discover the term “drift” and when did it seem appropriate?

AH: “Drifting” is a literal translation of dérive, and it’s a great way to get to know a lot about a city in a short period of time. Over a sustained period of time, one can detect patterns in a city’s life, discover what is anomalous, and move beyond the immediately recognizable aspects of a particular city toward a more deeper understanding of the network of influences that is the metropolis. The drift is best as a collective activity. I am increasingly interested in the discursive conversations that accompany these walks. For me, drifting alone is difficult as I get easily distracted by my own thoughts and lose focus on my surroundings. But with a partner or two, a lot of unexpected ground gets covered.

CP: Do you feel the “art” that takes place is in the walking? Or is it in the work that comes from the walking?

AH: The art is in both. The walk, with or without a plan, can be a performance—a sustained deviation from typical modes of action. The walk offers a period of heightened awareness during which I make observations and collect material. Over time, I may work with the material to create a document. All of this work is art-making.