SLIP Sensor | Francesco Pedraglio

Show: SLIP Sensor (Part I)

Publication: Cell Project Space

Writer: Francesco Pedraglio

The Abstract Object

 , First Episode

‘The Dust in the Cairo Museum’ or ‘The Museum that Cast Shadows’

 

I remember this object; I can still recall its shape, the different shades of colours changing according to the daylight piercing the nearby windows, the obstinate silence of its materials. I remember absolutely everything about it.

And yet I think I had never seen it before in my life!

 

Asim Mady, gazing at a Khufu sculpture, British Museum, London

July 1989

 

For the few who knew him personally, it soon became clear that the night on which Asim Mady dislodged a pomegranate-shaped rock from the pavement of Midan Talaat Harb Square could not have been like any other of those still evenings he would normally spend alone around the museum neighbourhood.

That said, I am not completely convinced that, considering the numerous unknown elements shaping the vague rumours of such night, as the man tightened his right fist around the uneven surface of the stone, he realised he was not only watching the beginning of a day somewhat disturbingly referred to as National Grand Feast Day, but, more specifically, he was witnessing the commencement of a very special morning that was to turn his entire existence upside down, without further ado.

Yet, that is not all we came to know about that strange evening. Indeed, while Mr Mady, taking advantage of the strength still present in his skinny hollow body, decided it was about time to throw the abovementioned rock at the iron-framed glass façade of the former Cairo Museum, that very evening Dr Kurt O’Hogan, impresario and part-time art connoisseur of British origin, obtained the final official signature that guaranteed him complete control over a 10,000-metre-square building site encompassing, among others, also the spot in which the infamous stone would soon land.

After what had been described as ‘the museum’s unfortunate incident’, beyond all the trials, appeals and recourses, having overcome the fear of an uncertain future and found a new confidence within a glorious present, Mady still failed to recognise – or at least pretended to – the quite ironic elements at play in such an utterly unplanned successions of events. I am speaking here of something so powerful and yet so well hidden under a thick net of causality; something that has the ability to reshape people’s future.

From my side, I came to understand only years later – once Mady was already buried several metres beneath the glorious dirt of London’s Bunhill Fields cemetery and his progeny ceased to consider the notoriety of their beloved father a problem – that he was reluctant to openly trace links between the incidents of that incredible 6th of November simply because, in his mind, the actions were dictated by bare necessity, something unrelated, by any means, to scientific claims, public festivities or business interests.

As we all learnt too well at first hand, though, life’s conditions could change dramatically with the blink of an eye, and with them, people must change too, readapting and modelling themselves over the tight web of never-lasting happenings. A rock is just a rock, but, once thrown, will inexorably land somewhere, and it will do so not without consequence. As such, moments after the museum’s window shattered into smithereens with a piercing high-pitched sound, Asim Mady realised that, like atoms recombining into unexpected new formations, unrelated events happen to meet and have unthinkable consequences for every man’s existence. So there he was, things rolling around him like props before a camera, and he had to act fast, readapt before it was too late.

In this sense – and maybe just in this sense – I must recognise Mr Mady’s extreme visionary attitude. He was clever enough as to foresee the unpredictable unfolding of the situation he was faced with by turning it upside down and getting the most out of it, demonstrating he was quite some expert in the mysterious art of surviving. True, he might have been just lucky, or simply fast, but, soon after the police arrived at the place in which everything had happened, the causes and effects of his decision to climb the green fence of the museum and make his way to its main door overlapped unexpectedly with both the chaos of the National Grand Feast Day celebrations and the sudden reinforcement of Dr O’Hogan’s business ambitions. All this created new and unpredictable consequences that Mady had to interpret pretty fast while being dragged out of the abandoned building by his hair. As for the way Asim’s subjective decision to vandalise the former symbol of Egyptian cultural heritage got mixed up with these unrelated affairs, well that’s precisely what made of such a witty man in search of recognition an unexpected symbol of a conceptual revolution.

Years later, when we met for the first time in his three-storey, barely-decorated Victorian house in north London, he could still recount with frightening precision the slow succession of events which, after months of discussions and disagreements, brought him recognition as the first theorist of the ‘abstract object’, one of the finest cognitive scientists on both the Egyptian and international cultural stages. While talking, he would use the palm and knuckles of his right hand to tap out a rhythm which would accompany each step of what had happened more than 30 years before. In a syncopated tune of beats and off-beats, played over the wooden table, he would repeat the same litany until he would find it to be clear enough for his listener:

 

First: my right hand BEAT over the rock OFFBEAT; the dryness of the first BEAT rubbing against the dryness of the second OFFBEAT.

Then: a straight movement describing a semicircle in midair OFFBEAT, as if slamming an invisible door BEAT or slapping an immaterial body BEAT.

Finally, some muffled grunts as to stress the animal quality of such gesture OFFBEAT.

 

Even though at the time of our first conversation I already had a clear picture of what had happened that night and why, I intentionally avoided listing back to him the equally straight index of consequences unleashed by the man’s acts. For instance, how people, at first, reduced the event to a vicious attack perpetrated against a landmark embodying an everlasting national pride. Or again, how they then talked about it as a freak accident carried out by an unstable subject moved by illogical thinking. Or finally, after Mady’s moving and intelligent public defence, how they concluded that they had witnessed an exceptional scientific experiment that has changed our way of looking at inanimate objects ever since.

On the morning of National Grand Feast Day, as Dr O’Hogan finally managed to read in his hotel bed the local newspaper delivered to his doorstep, the city of Cairo awoke with a brand new story to discuss in the crowded cafes of Khan El Khalili, something that would soon be described as a revolution in the perception of objects, a contemporary Copernican theory applied to inorganic matter. When the elliptical shape described by Mady’s rock hit the glass, reducing the fine transparent surface into nothing more than sharp confetti, the man himself did not know anything about this future revolution of his. And neither did Mr O’Hogan, now comfortably lying in bed following months of early mornings and late-night work. What Mady did know, though, or better, what he came to understand pretty soon as a consequence of his action, was that a glass hit by a stone on a silent night can produce a dramatic sound, something he had experienced only at the cinema before; it is a noise that can, for instance, easily attract the attention of a police car passing by. And more, he suddenly realised that officers disturbed during their monotonous duties around the city do not ask too many questions before hitting a suspect in the face with the very same object he had proudly chosen as a protest tool. For it was indeed protest what motivated the entire business of his attack on the museum. At least that is what the papers published the following morning in thick black capital letters on their front pages and, consequently, that is what Dr Kurt O’Hogan read while gently sipping his freshly roasted coffee, determined to spend his first day off in months taking in culturally-oriented and philanthropy-driven activities.

Now, the fact that the British businessman had that specific morning some free time to read the papers and investigate what had happened in his neighbourhood, and that the local press could not come up with anything more interesting than a vandal attack on an empty building casually located in the middle of O’Hogan’s newly acquired plot, all these elements are parts in a complex puzzle that, several weeks later, would be used to define once and for all the intricate nature of what Mady would call an ‘abstract object’.

Reading the first lines of Egypt Today’s editorial dated 7 November 1972 – the only editorial Dr O’Hogan was able to read, owing to his poor Arabic – we should be able to understand the intense confusion that surrounded the news of the attack:

 

[…] The explosive appears to have been loaded and ready to detonate for a long while; it was about to affect the sad consequences now evident before our eyes. And what triggered it seems equally clear: Mr Mady is an angry man. He has been angry for so long that none of the people we interviewed – and who claimed to know him sufficiently well to offer their assistance to our newspaper – could clearly remember when his discontent began and why. The only certain thing is that his rage dates back well before the vile action against all Egyptian people, well before the rock and the shattered glass.

 

Yet, I soon started to doubt about the entire story: there was something about Mady, something that did not match the skilful ad hoc portrait created by the papers. And I doubted him even more when – following his successful harangue to the jury – public opinion of him shifted dramatically from a violent and deranged character to an admired theorist with the gift of originality. And now, with distance, while interest in this anecdote has waned and the existence of abstract objects is taken for granted, exactly now I feel the need to clarify once and for all what, in my opinion, happened and how.

Asim Baba Kafele Mady, the first of four sons of a potter from Giza, was a civil engineer who graduated from King Faud Technical University in Cairo several years prior to the museum incident. During his studies – and as it became clear soon after the attack – while learning the rules of making things stand, Mady also learned of the importance of knocking things down. I am not sure when the idea of vandalising the museum entered his mind, and I am also convinced that, after his acquittal, he promised himself never to reveal his original plan to anyone. He definitely did not do so with me, even when I openly asked him about the entire business of that night. But suppositions and rumours soon began to circulate, and he could not stop people from talking. For instance, some of the more witty commentators highlighted how a few weeks before the attack the mayor had announced the relocation of the Egyptian Museum to a newly refurbished building just two streets away from the former one that Mr Mady knew so well thanks to his habitual night-time walks around the area. Or the fact that the discussion over the future of the now-empty old building began to encompass the possibility of demolition or at least partial renovation. All opportunities, I’m sure, that Asim Mady couldn’t not consider interesting to his own career. He knew more than anyone else that what was still dangerously standing up – a dilapidated building – must sooner or later come down, with all the associated consequences: an open competition to choose the contractor, regulations for the safe management of the site, demolition plans, disposal of all materials, cleaning and drainage of the area, health and safety control, etc.

The thrown rock was just a rock; it was merely a tool with no specific political meaning. It simply did what he expected it to do: smash the full-length window of the façade, set off the alarm still active in the main hall of the defunct museum and, consequently, create a buzz around the necessity to accelerate the decisions over that old embarrassing symbol of a bygone era. Once attention would finally turn to the problematic building, Mady would have been there first to propose a constructive, economically-driven and efficiently-structured plan. Nobody knew the place as he did. He was the man for the job. Maybe they would have even asked him to demolish that catafalque and work on the development of a new building. His fantasies were running wild with the possible consequences of such a simple gesture as breaking in to the building’s main hall. And that simple rock was to be his fortune.

As naive as it would appear in retrospect, Mady somehow managed to convince himself of the validity of such a foolish plan. Pure necessity I suppose. Obviously, as we know too well now, it did not work out as expected. Instead, he had to correct the trajectory of his anticipation. But what he did not foreseen – the arrival of the police, the press interest, Dr O’Hogan’s sudden intervention in the quarrel over the museum – became precisely what turned such a random situation into an exceptional event, a unique situation that finally went well beyond Mady’s wildest hopes. He never became the chief engineer in charge of the demolition of the former Cairo Museum. While I am writing this, the building is still standing in the very same spot on which it had been constructed more than a century ago. What did happen, though, is that he became a pioneer of a completely new branch of cognitive science: a researcher able to demonstrate through a sensational gesture the existence of objects whose nature is neither real nor unreal; substances that exist as unprocessed concepts of other materials and yet bear consequences in the physical world. More specifically, he became the theorist of what came to be defined as ‘abstract objects’ and ‘not-experienced memories’.

The way in which the staggering pattern of unrelated events rubbed against Mady’s modest first plan and produced such an unexpected spark, all this now seems the only real abstraction I can envisage in the entire situation. But I soon realised I was alone in thinking this. Public opinion was hungry for such a tragic hero.

So, when Lieutenant Chalthoum, the first officer who responded to the call from the patrol unit parked outside the museum gate and followed Mady’s muffled screams to the main hall of the dilapidated building, he could not but record the exceptional scene he had witnessed. While Mady was dragged out of the building, Mr Chalthoum took the opportunity to stroll around the imposing empty lobby of the museum. Memories sprung into his mind with unexpected vigour. The voices, noises and smells of a school trips buried beneath forty years of life events arose again from somewhere in the back of his mind; the day his father brought the family to see the recently opened collection of the Old Kingdom; the time he met a now-forgotten lover in the cafe just a few metres from where he was standing. Lieutenant Chalthoum never thought of himself as one of these melancholic types of men indulging in pitiful reminiscences. He despised all that ridiculous sentimentalism. Nevertheless, he had to admit that, as he compiled the cold police report on the inspection, some of these images constantly haunted him.

And that is not all. Indeed, that very same report Mr Chalthoum presented to the press in the early hours of the 7th of November would somehow become the only reliable clue that an entire city – Dr O’Hogan and myself included – would use to decipher what might have happened that mysterious night. The statement, edited and published beside a blurry picture of the scene taken from enough distance as to not allow for any decisive conclusion, went more or less like this:

 

Case Number: IN 3462

Incident: Property Infraction

Reporting Officer: Lieutenant Chalthoum

Date of Report: 07 November 1972

 

At about 1223 hours on 7th November, I met with colleagues xxx and xxxxxxxx at the south gate of Tahrir Square (former Egyptian Museum). Mr Asim Baba Kafele Mady, male, 36 years of age, resident of Giza, was accompanied out of the premises by colleagues xxx and xxxxxxxx while in visible distress. I searched the area around the main entrance to the building and found:

 

-      1 stone, round-shaped, bloodstained around the edges (probably the suspect’s). Unknown provenance

-      Shards of glass from the main large windows, both outside and inside the premises

-      No other sign of violation to the external perimeter

 

I conducted a survey of the scene but found no other evidence or irregularity. I saw no clues that suggested Mr Mady wasn’t alone in the area, and there were no other items to retrieve or photograph in relation to the infraction.

I continued my search in the large lobby of the building. The space was so dark that I had to get a torch from the boot of my vehicle. Once back in the hall, it took me quite some time to realise what I was seeing. Hours later, I’m still not sure I will be able to describe what I encountered when I shone the torch at the cabinets. I can’t exclude that I might have been delirious because of the stifling air we were all breathing.

Piles and piles, real mountains of soft, floury and greyish dust reshaped the walls into a desolate, moon-like landscape that surrounded me completely. The confusing element was that the hard-to-the-touch powdery dirt hills suggested both the presence and absence of human intervention, while the building has been officially abandoned for more than 10 years. It seemed as though someone had organised that chaotic development of nothingness. Even if it was just settled dust, which is not uncommon in a space deserted for so many years, I still noticed a certain logic or system in the accumulation. Maybe a mind had carefully planned it all?

 

In the very same report, Lieutenant Chalthoum disclosed some more distressing elements about the scene, which were all carefully picked out by Mady for his passionate defence during the trial for burglary.

Owing to his previous knowledge of the museum lobby, Chalthoum noticed that the distribution of dust around the sides of the room described a peculiar pattern, an arrangement that seemed to suggest a vivid link with the various artefacts once housed in the building. If the grime agglomerate designed inexplicable shapes that still attract visitors from all over the globe today – tourists eager to spend some time and money visiting the renamed Museum that Cast Shadows, the empty spots in which the accumulation of dust suddenly stops opened another, possibly larger, space for discussion. It seemed as if, precisely in the places once occupied by the collection’s artefacts, the grey growth suddenly disappeared, leaving clear empty patches revealing the dark mahogany of the museum furniture. The resulting image was that of an undulation between full and empty, underlining the absence of something not yet possible to forget.

I should not even mention the clear potentiality created by such a mystery. What I should add, however, is that none of these prospects went unnoticed by either Mr Mady or Mr O’Hogan. Each of the two men used the conundrum for their personal aims: the former to escape the embarrassing accusation of attempted burglary and gain worldwide notoriety for his theories on abstract objects; the latter to boost his recently acquired property by according to Mady the intellectual right over the discovery and, thus, reaping the financial benefits of an unexpectedly functioning museum filled with these very same abstractions.

The rest of the story is now public knowledge, and has been discussed and analysed countless times, ad nauseam. For the sake of clarity I should just add that, faced with such an extraordinary event and unaware of the consequences of their decision, Lieutenant Chalthoum and his two colleagues failed to leave the crime scene with the suspect, as police protocol dictates. Instead, they called the central police station for backup, thereby sparking a series of reactions that soon had the entire Cairo press in the building ready to fill the barely interesting pages of the National Grand Feast Day edition of their papers with such bizarrely eerie news. And while the race was raging over the latest developments in the investigation through supposed witness interviews and unreleased scoops on Asim Mady’s life story, Dr Kurt O’Hogan, instead of spending his well-deserved day off celebrating a national holiday whose meaning he could not fathom anyway, decided he would be better off trying to understand more of what had happened the night before on his newly-acquired property. So, when Mady was finally released from hospital, not only had he already had the pleasure of meeting O’Hogan personally, but had also conducted some important discussions with the businessman’s pool of layers, who were eager to propose an exit plan from his legal troubles.

I cannot be sure who first came up with the idea of the abstract object and, consequently, of The Museum that Cast Shadows: whether it came from the business plan of a British entrepreneur with an appreciation for art or from Mady’s survival instinct. What I know for certain is that, over the few months of his trial, the position of the civil engineer from Giza changed drastically through his revolutionary presentation of a new cognitive theory on the perception of inanimate matter, the best example of which had been the now universally-renowned experiment of the museum dust casting the shadows of its forgotten objects. So, once again, the rock was just a tool.

Looking at things from this perspective – and owing to public opinion supporting Mady’s theories – the jury could do nothing but acquit the defendant by reason of his scientific research that, even if pursued in a deplorable manner, showed the highest commitment to defining the boundaries of the newly developing field of cognitive science.

Less than a year after the event, The Museum that Cast Shadows opened to the public, following the celebration for the newly built Egyptian Museum. After speeches by major Cairo political figures and a brief presentation by Dr Kurt O’Hogan – now trustee of the CCH (Cairo Cultural Hub) – Asim Mady presented his redefined theory of the abstract object:

 

[…] My aim has been to demonstrate the existence and the strong influences of 'not-experienced memories' of certain inanimate objects on our everyday decisions. The possibility that these memories exist leads to the production of what I have called abstract objects; objects whose constituent elements (physical or mental) derive from imagined impressions based on abstract knowledge, misunderstandings, overheard conversations, occurrences you suppose have been taking place, things you have never witnessed but you feel exist and function, concepts that have never been substantiated but you still consider to be symbolic of the own way of looking and experiencing your surroundings.

All of these elements are present in their disappearance and active in their absence.

All of these elements contribute to the production of the abstract object.

The Museum that Cast Shadows is just an example, the most beautiful of all possible formulations of a cognitive process […]

 

So, if there is any truth at all in the formulation of the abstract object theory, where does this truth lie?

The last time I saw Asim Mady alive was on a mid-October Sunday afternoon in London. For old times’ sake, he agreed to a final meeting and, despite the chilly weather, proposed a walk on Hampstead Heath. The diabetes that would kill him a few months later was already preventing him from walking easily, so it took us more than an hour to arrive at the point which he wanted to get to. Once beside a series of birch trees to the west of the main field, he showed me the spot where he, allegedly, had been gradually burring all his possessions since the day he moved to London – hence his scarcely-decorated house I’ve been visiting countless time before. Books, magazines, photographs, records and albums, curtains, clothes and even furniture: all hidden down there beneath several metres of earth. This was his last concept; his final idea for how to revive the mystery around his persona and the entire project of his life. Nobody would really know, but people would have talked about it.

After years of enquiries and stubborn attempts to uncover the miserable plan beneath the man’s theories, I cannot but link the incident of the rock with the self-burial process, noting their surreal and yet complementary nature. On the night of the 7th of November 1972, a more-or-less intentional gesture established the existence of not-experienced memories, which are reminiscences with the power to concretely influence the perception of our own surroundings. 38 years later, the man who began it all by demonstrating the influence of abstract objects on our habits was trying to transform his life into a not-experienced concept by hiding all that he was – all that surrounded him – under a few metres of soil. The circle seemed to close around Mr Mady: if an abstract concept could have been embodied by a physical object, even by a building, then a real person, with his many idiosyncrasies and facets, was now becoming an abstraction: he was disappearing, transforming himself into nothingness.

Do I believe the story of the dust? That is probably not important anymore. Intentionally or not, Asim Mady’s object is now something I never experienced and yet I still remember.