Grey Space, Tahrir Laser: Conspiracy, Critique and the Urban in Julie Mehretu’s Depictions of Revolutionary Cairo
This chapter explores the relationship between conspiracy and the city by drawing together in comparative analysis artist Julie Mehretu’s paintings series ‘Mogamma: A Painting in Four Parts’ with ethnographic research in 2011–2013 revolutionary Cairo, as well as reflexive scholarship on critical theory. Mehretu strives to represent the ‘grey space’ or ‘thirdspace’ of symbolic urban fora such as Tahrir Square through a process of marking, layering and erasing. What remains is a depiction of the city as defined by the gap between that which is spontaneous and that which is planned, most evident when considering urban violence. The telescopic complexity and disorientation in interpreting symbolic sites when confronted with transformational political events, where both the big picture and the small picture cannot be witnessed at once, evokes both the central argument of Bruno Latour’s landmark essay, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?’, and the logic sustaining many of Egypt’s conspiratorial tropes—tropes that in turn provide an ideological infrastructure for violence. If this disorientation is understood anthropologically as a mass ritual process for which symbolic city space is the necessary stage, then it follows that the urban and conspiracy necessarily intersect. I conclude by outlining some of the central characters of urban conspiracy and violence in revolutionary Egypt, showing how, especially when times are uncertain, they are imagined as thriving between planned and spontaneous spaces.
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