Category Archives: Palestine

Crises of labour, language and behaviour. An interview with Jeremy Hutchison

I discovered Jeremy Hutchison’s work in 2011 when he was exhibiting a series of laughable objects he had commissioned to manufacturers around the world. Not only did he ask them to fabricate items that would be unusable but he also requested that each worker had full license to decide what the error, flaw and glitch in the final product would be. Hutchison ended up with a collection of dysfunctional objects and prints of online exchanges with baffled factory managers. Err is an artwork that’s both ridiculous and profound. Behind its perfectly impractical combs, chairs, skateboards and trumpets, lay moments of poetry within the perfectly oiled machine of globalization and an elusive portrait of the anonymous factory workforce that manufacture all the consumer goods we don’t need but have been conditioned to yearn for.


Jeremy Hutchison, ERR, 2011. Untitled (made by Carlos Barrachina, Segorbina de Bastones, Segorbe, Spain)


Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017. Fondazione Prada curated by Evelyn Simons. Photo by Paris Tavitian

At the time, I was expecting Hutchison to be a one hit wonder. I liked Err so much, i imperiously decided the artist would never be able to live up to everyone’s expectations. And yet, over the years, he kept on creating artworks that “explore improper arrangements of labour, language, behaviour and material to produce crises.” Artworks that proved my instincts wrong again and again: canvases involving BOTH an investment banker and an Occupy protestor, an exhibition orchestrated by members of the Sapporo Police Department, a video starring employees of a peanut factory without peanuts and a series of consumer goods that explore the (possible) “well-meaning dictatorship” of design.

Whether it meditates on the condition of the worker or investigates the recuperation of anti-capitalistic aesthetics by capitalism, Hutchison’s work is always imbued with humour and compassion. He’s having a few exhibitions across Europe this month. One of them is Transnationalisms which opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I liked Aksioma‘s version of the show in Ljubljana so much, i thought i’d use the London edition of Transnationalisms as an excuse to get in touch with the artist.


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist

Hi Jeremy! Your project Movables will be part of the Transnationalisms group show that opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I find the work very moving. You sourced an image from the Daily Mail – a website that spreads hatred and contempt towards immigrants – and you used this as a starting point to question the regulations over the freedom of movement. Can you tell me more about this work?

Yes: I came across this photo on the Daily Mail website. It had been taken by police at a border point somewhere in the Balkans. The image showed the inside of a Mercedes: the headrests of the front seats had been torn open by police, revealing a human body hiding inside each seat.

This photograph testifies to a reality where human bodies attempt to disguise themselves as inanimate objects, simply to acquire the same freedom of movement as consumer goods.

In Movables, I translated this absurdity into a series of photo collages. They combine elements of high-end fashion shoots and car adverts – enacting an anthropomorphic fusion between human bodies and consumer products. The results are sort of uncanny. They appropriate a familiar visual language, but distort it to present a series of freaks. In doing this, I wanted them to embody a contradictory premise of global capitalism – with respect to the freedom of movement. Capital requires ‘free’ individuals to function as cheap labour forces. But it simultaneously needs to restrict their movement since it can’t offer the same freedom to everyone. 


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

You are currently showing Fabrications at Division of Labour. For this project, you spent time in a jeans factory in Palestine and asked the workers to make jeans that translated what it was like to make jeans in Palestine. How did they react to your request?

Well, this project started with a conversation I had with the factory manager. He showed me a photograph of an Israeli tank, parked outside the factory. Its cannon was pointed directly at the building. He said it was hard to describe the physiological effect of this experience: of working under the threat of total obliteration.

So I asked him if he could manufacture jeans that described it instead. He produced five pairs. Each was distorted into unwearable positions; monstrous contortions of human legs. In some ways, I think they point to the way in which trauma becomes inscribed on the body. Stress isn’t simply a psychological state, it’s an embodied experience. It becomes genetically encoded, and passed down through generations. I think these jeans describe something of this process; how history is inscribed on the body – producing material, anatomical realities.


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2016

The description on your website says that the “project constructs a counter-history of Palestine.” What do you mean by that? And how does Fabrications achieve it?

I’ve produced a number of projects in the Middle East. And the more time I spend there, the harder it becomes to think in terms of facts, history, or truth. Whatever position you take, it’s subject to a myriad of subjective distortions.

So in this project, I accelerate this process. Via a series of heavily retouched images, I suggest that Palestine was once bright blue, like the sky. Vast quarries of dazzling indigo rock spilled out of the land. They used the indigo to dye jeans. In turn, this attracted foreign investment, colonisation – and ultimately the Indigo Wars.

Of course, this is absurd. Indigo isn’t a mineral, but a flower. There were no indigo mines, no Indigo Wars, and Palestine was never blue. By invoking this fictitious narrative, the work invites a critical reflection around the construction of historical discourse, alluding to the distortions that take place in the structuring of history. But ludicrous as it may be, this falsified history operates in a tension with contemporary reality. After all, Palestine’s representation in Western media is plagued by uncertainty. Its geopolitical status is perpetually ambiguous. So the work concentrates this state of uncertainty into a poetic delusion. The land itself becomes a vessel for the imagination.

I’ve exhibited this work several times – including the ICA in London, the EVA Biennale in Ireland. What’s interesting is how often it passes for historical fact: how readily a fictitious history is unquestioningly accepted by a sophisticated audience. Perhaps this is part of the project’s success: it performs its own problem. It demonstrates how truths can be manufactured and circulated, like consumer goods. And it points to the role of white British men in doing so.


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon

I’m interested in your work In heaven people play peacefully sometimes. In this project you invited four Task Rabbit workers to paint a mural as if they were a single person. Does the performance point to potential new forms of collaboration that would somehow counterbalance the new tech-mediated trends in labour that dehumanize workers and reduce them to just another cog in the machine?

In many ways, yes. I wanted to explore a situation that rehearsed a kind of solidarity between this distributed workforce. A physical solidarity among workers in the gig economy. None of them had ever worked alongside another ‘Tasker’ – in fact, they’d barely even met one. And this is precisely the point. The fragmentation of workers in the gig economy means that they are pitted against one another. Their individual success depends on their ability to outperform their peers – not to organise or collaborate with them.

The project was triggered by something a gig worker told me. He had stopped using the leather case for his iPhone. Why? Because the time it took to open the flap would result in him losing a gig. During that split-second delay, another worker would get there first. The apparently casual working conditions of the gig economy don’t produce casual workers, but individuated neurotics, fixated on data, personal rankings and milliseconds.

So in this sense, I’d agree with you: we can see the gig worker as a ‘cog in a machine.’ But do the new tech-mediated trends in labour de-humanize workers? Not always. In fact, I think it’s precisely the workers’ humanity – their human capital – that is often foregrounded in these labour platforms. Their personality, social attributes and subjective traits are commodified in their profile pages. So rather than de-humanising workers, I would argue that digital technology does the opposite. It obliges us to amplify our subjective human traits: to exaggerate our individuality and present it as a quantifiable economic resource.

With each new project, it seems that you uncover and investigate a new aspect of production, of consumption but also of labour and how technology is changing its dynamics and logics. How does it affect you personally? How does it change (if it does) the way you shop, work, relate to others?

Well I buy fair trade, I don’t eat meat and I boycott fast fashion. But I have an iPhone that’s stuffed with conflict minerals from Congolese mines. Like everyone else, I’m inextricably complicit in these exploitative networks of production and consumption. Try as we might, it’s extremely difficult to adopt a position outside them. I guess I’m interested in understanding my own complicity and articulating this; to trace out a relationship between my own lifestyle and a global problematic. How do my consumer choices relate to current humanitarian catastrophes? How does the stuff I buy feed off racial hierarchies, economic inequalities, and exploitative supply chains? Consumer objects are portraits of these things – and like most people, my home is filled with them. So I think my art practice helps me to think about the invisible structures that support my privileged Western position. These structures are man-made: they can be re-shaped and distorted by us. I think art can be a way to think through these questions.

Jeremy Hutchison, Monolimum, 2017


Jeremy Hutchison, Limomolum, 2016, Documentation of linocutting workshops at Trust In Fife housing shelter, Kirkcaldy

I learnt a lot from the text you wrote for Limomolum. I found it very moving too. Is this all based on your own experience/relationship with linoleum? Or did you mix stories you heard while in Kirkcaldy?

Thanks Regine, yes all the texts draw on my own experience. Limomolum explores a town called Kirkcaldy on the East coast of Scotland. For two centuries, it was a very productive, affluent place: home of the global linoleum industry. But in the eighties, it started to fall apart. Today Kirkcaldy is largely a place of unemployment and drug addiction.

My father was born there. His family owned a linoleum factory, but he was estranged from them. So I grew up knowing very little about the town. So I took the train up there, and set out to explore. One morning I wandered into the homeless shelter and started chatting to a couple of residents. This was the beginning of a year-long project: we turned the shelter into a performance centre, and the employment support clinic into a linocutting workshop. The work was exhibited in the Kirkcaldy museum.

So yes, I wrote a publication to accompany this show. I wanted to try and capture the complexity of this place, without reducing this constellation of histories and economies. When projects become as extensive as this one, there’s a temptation to make the work complex. I find that writing helps to keep things simple.


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still

I only have an external and superficial perspective on your work of course but it seems to me that you manage to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect with the workers (or unemployed people) you feature in your works. How do you manage to convince them that you’re not there to exploit them and make a spectacle of their life? How much efforts, strategies does that require?

These are complex ethical questions. How do I convince people to work with me? How do I avoid making a spectacle of their lives? I don’t think I necessarily do. If we engage with them squarely, the exchanges that take place in social practice are often loaded with asymmetrical power relations. Value can be produced in tacit, invisible ways. Rather than smoothing over awkward socioeconomic imbalances, I try fold these questions into the work. I think the more interesting answer is to be honest, about when social arrangements become exploitative, or turn sour, or fail. Despite my best efforts to anticipate ethical problems, sometimes I fall right into them. I don’t think the answer is to avoid these messy situations, but to move through them.

You were recently on residency in Japan. Can you tell me what you were doing there?

I went to Japan to think about labour conditions. I wanted to explore a country that even has a word for work-induced death: karoshi. Given the relentless pressure to work, what will happen when jobs are automated? How will Japanese people navigate the existential challenge of a post-work condition? What will they do?

This resulted in a project called HumanWork. Borrowing its name from the premier recruitment agency in Japan, it explores the process of recruiting someone for a week of non-productive labour. The project was commissioned by Arts Catalyst / S-Air, and should be exhibited fairly soon. Oh, and I also made a project with the Sapporo Police Department. But I’ll tell you about that another time!

Thanks Jeremy!

Transnationalisms, curated by James Bridle, is at Furtherfield in London, from 15 Sep until Sunday 21 Oct 2018.
Jeremy Hutchison’s work is also part of APPAREL at Division of Labour in Salford, Manchester, Jerwood Drawing Prize at Drawing Projects in Trowbridge, Market Forces at HeRo Gallery in Amsterdam and many more i’m sure.

Transnationalisms is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Previously: Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition and Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison.

Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel

Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel, edited by Vered Maimon, a Senior Lecturer in the Art History Department at Tel Aviv University, and by Shiraz Grinbaum, a curator and photo editor for the Activestills Collective and researcher at Tel Aviv University.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Pluto Press writes: In 2005, a group of photographers took a stand alongside the people of the small town of Bil’in, and documented their fight to stop the Israeli government building the infamous West Bank Barrier. Inspired by what they had seen in Bil’in, the group went on to form Activestills, a collective whose work has become vital in documenting the struggle against Israeli occupation and everyday life in extraordinary situations.

Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel examines the collective’s archive and activity from historical, theoretical, critical, and personal perspectives. It is the result of an in-depth dialogue among members of the collective and activists, journalists, intellectuals, and academics, and stands as the definitive study of the collective’s work.

Combining striking full-colour photographs with essays and commentary, the book stands as both a major contribution to reportage on Israel/Palestine and a unique collection of visual art.


Children sit amidst their belongings after a demolition in al-Araqib village in the south of present-day Israel, October 2009. Credit: Activestills.org


African asylum seekers and their supporters gather in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, December 2013. Credit: Activestills.org


Demonstrators stage a solidarity action with Khader Adnan, who embarked on a lengthy hunger strike to protest his detention by Israel without charge or trial, in the West Bank village of Bilin, February 2012. Credit: Activestills.org

Activestills is a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers who use their camera as a tool for social and political change. Unlike most photo reporters, the members of Activestills don’t see themselves as impartial and external witnesses but as part and parcel of the events they document. They don’t see their subjects as victims either, but as political agents who play an important role in the resistance against all forms of oppression.

Activestills dedicates an important portion of its coverage to the Israeli occupation and its two corollaries: the resistance against it and the violations of human rights carried out in broad day light. But the group also looks at injustices that happen within Israel: LGBTQ campaigns for equality, continuous discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, migration and asylum seekers, resistance against privatization of natural resources, the ultra-Orthodox community’s resistance to compulsory military enlistment, etc.
They see connections and parallels between theses struggles.


The Halif family site near an improvised dinner table set near their demolished house in Givat Amal neighbourhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. Two days passed since the third eviction of families in the neighbourhood which left 20 residents homeless without proper compensation or alternative housing solution. Credit: Activestills.org


Activestills street exhibition, Bil’in, West Bank, 2007. Credit: Activestills.org

Another important focus of Activestills is that that they want their images and the social issues they address to be visible to everyone. The group not only collaborates with independent media but they also set up street exhibitions in the very spaces where the images have been taken, making them closer to an audience of people who are directly affected by the situations documented. The street shows also find their way to Israel. Although the audience there might sometimes be less willing to engage with some of the struggles that the photos uncover.

I’ve been admiring the work of the photo collective for years. Activestills. Photography as Protest in Palestine/Israel is a relentlessly interesting book that analyses the group’s practices of intervention and visualization of struggles and explores their unique identity within the field of photo reporting. As you can expect, the book is splendidly illustrated with images of the collective’s work but it also contains essays, conversations with and texts by activists and by photographers who further illuminate and contextualize the work of Activestills, the way it challenges paradigms of news consumption and embeds solidarity into each of its actions.


A protester during confrontations with Israeli forces north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, near the Beit El settlement, November 2015. Credit: Activestills.org


Palestinian farmer and activist Muhammad Amira climbs a ladder next to the separation wall to watch over Israeli soldiers arriving to open the agricultural gate in his village, Ni’lin, in the West Bank. After the building of the wall in Ni’lin, many farmers were separated from their agricultural land. In order to work on their land, they must apply for wall-crossing permits from the Israeli army. Credit: Activestills.org


Residents of the ‘unrecognized’ village of Al-Araqib hold Activestills photos documenting their struggle during a protest against the demolition of their homes, 2010. Israeli authorities have since demolished the village over 100 times. Credit: Activestills.org


In the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, Israeli soldiers arrest Nariman Tamimi, a photographer herself, as her 8-year-old daughter, Ahed, tries to free her during a protest against the occupation in August 2012. Credit: Activestills.org


Photographs of Ali Saad Dawabsha, the Palestinian baby in an overnight arson attack, are laid out on the floor of his family home, Douma, West Bank, July 31, 2015. Credit: Activestills.org


Protesters take part in a demonstration calling for animal liberation. Tel Aviv, Israel (2013). © Activestills


Israeli soldiers try to arrest Activestills photographer Oren Ziv during a protest against settler violence in the West Bank, October 2012. Credit: Activestills.org

Josef Koudelka. Wall, portrait of a crime against the landscape


Josef Koudelka . Invasion / Exiles / Wall, view of the exhibition space at C/O Berlin

“Every day that I was there I didn’t see anything else but the wall, and I can tell you I couldn’t stand it longer than three weeks. I was so depressed that I needed to go away,” photographer Josef Koudelka explained in an interview about Wall, a series that documents the monumental wall erected by the state of Israel in the West Bank as well as around Israeli settlements.

In the early 2000s Israel unilaterally decided on building the wall on the pretext of protecting itself from terrorist attacks. A nine meter-tall and today over 700-kilometer-long fortress made of steel, concrete, barbed wire, and motion detectors—almost three times as high and five times as long as the Berlin Wall once was.

One of the reasons why Koudelka found it so painful to be in proximity to the wall is that he grew up behind the Iron Curtain. He is thus more affected than many of us by this attempt to curtail people’s freedom.

I didn’t grow up behind a wall but i did feel anxiety, claustrophobia and sadness when i discovered some of his panoramic landscape photographs at C/O Berlin. They were part of Josef Koudelka . Invasion / Exiles / Wall, an exhibition that also includes earlier works, such as the ones recording the Soviet occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia and the ones he took while living in exile in other European countries. The whole exhibition is magnificent but -and this won’t surprise anyone- i had to single out Wall.

I’ll leave you with his photos and accompanying comments:


Rachel’s Tomb, Bethlehem.
The Wall intrudes two kilometers into Bethlehem City to encircle Rachel’s Tomb, traditionally considered the burial site of the Biblical matriarch. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Josef Koudelka, Baqa ash Sharqiya Access gate.
Around 7,500 West Bank Palestinians reside between the Wall and the Green Line in an area called the ‘Seam Zone’. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Shu’fat Refugee Camp, overlooking Al ‘Isawiya, East Jerusalem.
When complete, the Wall will be approximately 700 kilometres long, more than twice the length of the 320-kilometer 1949 Armistice or Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, overlooking Gilo settlement.
The wall severs the historic link between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in addition to cutting off Bethlehem from its agricultural hinterland. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Hebron.
Around 120 obstacles block off the Israeli-controlled Old City of Hebron (H1 zone) from the rest of the city (H2 zone). © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Ash Shuhada Street, Hebron.
The majority of the Palestinian shops in the once commercially thriving Ash Shuhada Street have closed as a result of access restrictions by the Israeli military and harassment by Jewish settlers. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Roadblock, Route 443.
Roadblocks, checkpoints, and other physical obstacles restrict Palestinian pedestrian and vehicular movement throughout the West Bank. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Al ‘Eizariya (Bethany), overlooking, Ma’ale Adumminm settlement, East Jerusalem.
The Wall consists of concrete slabs, fences, ditches, razor wire, an electronic monitoring system, groomed sand paths, observation towers and military patrol roads. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

“I call what is going on in this most holy landscape, which is most holy for a big part of humanity, is the crime against the landscape. As there exists crimes against humanity there should exist the crime against the landscape.

I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world,” the photographer added in the interview mentioned above.


Al ‘Eizariya (Bethany), East Jerusalem.
Although the Wall is the largest infrastructure project undertaken by Israel, no studies have been carried out to evaluate its environmental impact. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Near Baqa ash Sharqiya.
Increasingly, Palestinians farmers can only access their farmland on the de facto Israeli side of the Wall with special Israeli issued ‘visitor permits’ and through designated gates. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Wall is part of a larger project, This Place, initiated by photographer Frédéric Brenner that explores Israel as place and metaphor through the eyes of twelve photographers.

The series is currently on view at C/O Berlin as part of Josef Koudelka. Invasion / Exiles / Wall. The exhibition was curated by Xavier Barral in cooperation with Sonia Voss. It remains open until 10 September 2017.

Book review: Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, by Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture, founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine, Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Global Scholar at Princeton University.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Zone Books and distributor by The MIT Press say: In recent years, the group Forensic Architecture began using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN. Forensic Architecture has not only shed new light on human rights violations and state crimes across the globe, but has also created a new form of investigative practice that bears its name.

The group uses architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction, as well as to cross-reference a variety of evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, witness testimony, and crowd-sourcing.

In Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group’s founder, provides, for the first time, an in-depth introduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice.


Forensic Architecture, Guatemala: Operación Sofia (The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman)


Forensic Architecture, White Phosphorus

Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research agency composed of artists, filmmakers, writers and architectural researchers who use architectural methods and repurpose new sensing technologies to investigate and expose state or corporate violence, especially when it bears upon the territory.

The group analyzes WW1 aerial photographs, inspects satellite images, deploys kites for land surveys, investigates material traces left on the ground, builds 3D models to re-create atrocities, creates interactive cartography and countercartography, collects testimonies of survivors, scrutinizes user-generated media made by citizens on the ground and uploaded on the internet, etc. Forensic Architecture uses any mean and media necessary to reconstruct evidences of violence that are inscribed onto the land and built environment. Their meticulous work is then turned into evidence that can be used in legal settings to challenge the official narrative of critical events. Sometimes, some form of justice is eventually reached. Other times, miscarriages of justice or even complete absence of justice prevail.

The case studies detailed in the book involve the reconstruction of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, an investigation into the environmental violence and climate change in Guatemala, the 3D modelling of bomb clouds that are then used as fingerprints for locating Israeli strikes on the Gaza dense urban environment, patterns of Western drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

Along the pages, you get to learn a lot about the challenges that the members of Forensic Architecture encounter in their work: satellite imagery is more affordable than ever but its photographic resolution is degraded for privacy and secrecy reasons, at least when it comes to the ones available to the public (as Weizman notes, high resolution is used for killing and low resolution for investigating the killing); a commitment to helping the victims leaves the group exposed to criticisms, even though their method is rigorously scientific; legal system itself can be part of a state’s mechanism of domination and denial; evidence from sources derived from new media video analysis, interactive cartography, or animation almost always encounter objection in court because they are too new, etc.

Saydnaya: inside a Syrian torture prison, a commission by Amnesty International


Rafah: Black Friday. Report on the war operations of 1-4 August 2014, in Rafah, Gaza. Image complex: Forensic Architecture


Forensic Architecture, Drone Strikes (Digital reconstruction of the scene of a drone strike in a 3D-mode. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013)

The book is fascinating. It is dense in information, images, maps and documentation that record the way the organization is re-appropriating and re-purposing a broad number of skills and technologies in the context of activism and justice. Their method is characterized by a remarkable amount of scientific accuracy, but also by a surprisingly high percentage of flexibility, empathy and creativity.

The book is often disheartening too. State-sponsored violence makes for very uncomfortable read: tales of ruthless dispossession, of Bedouin villages bulldozed time and time again, brutal colonization of landscape, destruction of life-sustaining resources, arbitrary killings made acceptable by the cultural and legal system, erasure of culture, etc.

Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability is a publication i’d recommend to anyone interested in human rights, activism, geopolitics, urban planning, architecture, and in the creative and social-engaged uses of technologies.

Pattern Recognition and young Palestinian art

Noor Abed1
Noor Abed, The Air Was Too Thin to Return the Gaze, 2016. Video stills. Image courtesy of the artist

The collaborative contemporary art biennial Qalandiya International is opening this month across towns and villages in Palestine. It will be looking for new perspectives around the Return, a theme at the root of many Palestinian dreams, literature and artworks following the Nakba (the exodus of more than 750,000 Palestinians who either fled or were expelled from their land when the Israeli state was established in 1948.)

The general title of this edition of QI is This Sea is Mine and i can’t help but think that it must have a bitter-sweet resonance for the crew of the Women’s Boat to Gaza, a group of women who set sail from Barcelona in an attempt to peacefully break the Gaza blockade, and who were intercepted and arrested by the Israeli navy a few days ago.

QI exhibitions and events are taking place in Haifa, Beirut, Gaza, Jerusalem, Bethleem, Amman and even London but the one that caught my attention is opening tomorrow in Ramallah: Pattern Recognition gathers works from the nine Palestinian artists shortlisted for the 2016 edition of the Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA 2016).

The projects in the exhibition explore how strategies of repetition open up avenues for critically rethinking issues of time, place, memory and authenticity. Straddling the grey zones between fact and fiction, original and copy, ruin and repair, the works re-imagine the mechanics of representation in the context of Palestine, where geographies, histories and identities are fragmented.

The newly commissioned works investigate this theme of repetition through works as diverse as an improvised performance based on the sounds of war, the exploration of the traces left by an UFO spotted over the village of Bir-Nabala, a patchwork blanket that is knitted and then unravelled in echo of the Palestinian-Syrian refugees who have to rebuild their life with each displacement, the reviving of an archival photo of a 1970s Palestinian female fighter through various moments in the history of post-Nakba Palestinian art, etc. There is a lot of drama, dream, despair and emotions in these artworks but there’s also a high dose of that unflappable, that very dark and subtle Palestinian humour.

Inas Halabi
Inas Halabi, ‘Mnemosyne’, 2016. Video still. Photo courtesy of the artist

Unfortunately, I can’t make it to Ramallah to see the show but i did manage to catch up with curator and critic Nat Muller while she was setting up the exhibition:

Hi Nat! You’ve curated the 9th edition of the Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA 2016). I think the competition takes place every two year. Looking back at previous editions, do you see some constant concerns or evolution in the themes explored by the artists or the way they engage with them?

Many Palestinian artists, regardless of their place of residence or age, address issues that define the Palestinian plight and the reality of living under the Israeli occupation. These range from forced exile, dispossession, violence, and curbs in mobility, to the construction of memory (be that individual or collective), historiography, (national) identity, and the relationship to the land and territory. The Young Artist of the Year Award has been around for 16 years and while on the one hand much has happened (a second intifada, a separation wall, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, and three Gaza wars), there is unfortunately more that has not happened. Palestinians still do not have a sovereign state. On a daily basis Palestinian experience this state of suspension, of being stuck between the desire for a nation and the harsh reality of living under occupation. So this post-Oslo inertia is also a theme that echoed in artists’ work.

Abdallah Awwad
Abdallah Awwad, The Horizon’s Pathway, 2016. Sculptures made from iron, wires, gypsum, fabric, silicon. Image courtesy of the artist

For example, for Pattern Recognition Abdallah Awwad produced sculptures in which it is unclear whether they are in the process of becoming, or of coming apart, very much akin to the Palestinian condition.

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Somar Sallam’s video and wool. Photo: Nat Muller

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Somar Salam, ‘Disillusioned Construction’, 2016. Video stills. Image courtesy of the artist

Somar Sallam2
Somar Salam, ‘Disillusioned Construction’, 2016. Video stills. Image courtesy of the artist

Somar Sallam’s video shows a woollen cover that is crocheted and then unravelled over and over again. But all this being said, I’ve seen artists engage more with Palestinian art history, for example in her project for the show Majd Masri takes an iconic photo of a female fedayee and redoes them in six specific styles corresponding to Palestinian art history and political events.

More generally, over the past decade ‘humour’ has become an adequate critical and artistic strategy to point out the dramatic, but surrealist, aspects of Palestinian life. I warmly recommend readers to check out Chrisoula Lionis’s brilliant book Laughter in Occupied Palestine: Comedy and Identity in Art and Film.

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Majd Masri, Haphazard Synchronizations, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, prints, collage. Image courtesy of the artist

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Majd Masri, Haphazard Synchronizations, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, prints, collage. Image courtesy of the artist

The artworks explore strategies of repetition. Why are they so important in the Palestinian context?

The exhibition takes place within the context of Qalandiya International, the Palestinian biennial. It is organised for the third time now, and its main theme is ‘return’, which is a complex notion for Palestinians, but strongly resonates now with the global refugee crisis. I was tasked to formulate a response to the theme of ‘return’ and was interested in seeing what kind of concepts young artists would come up with if they would consider the politics of form (repetition, pattern, rhythm), rather than drawing on a more familiar conceptual and visual lexicon of nostalgia and traditional iconography (keys, oranges, olive groves). In other words, how would they re-imagine the mechanics of representation in the context of Palestine where geographies, histories and identities are so fragmented and have been represented in very particular ways, from broadcast media to literature and art. Repetition becomes a critical strategy to explore the grey zones between, for example, fact and fiction, original and copy, ruin and repair.

These are pressures that – in some form or other – Palestinians deal with on a daily basis. From “facts on the ground” and the viability of a Palestinian state, to the cycle of violence and reconstruction. Origin and authenticity are major notions in the “who was here first” claim to the land argument between Palestinians and Israelis. Still, repetition and seriality can be used as a strong artistic and political tactic to highlight Palestinian presence.

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Noor Abed, The Air Was Too Thin to Return the Gaze, 2016. Video stills. Image courtesy of the artist

I’ve been wondering about the title of the exhibition, Pattern Recognition. It comes with strong connotations such as machine learning and sci-fi novel. So why did you chose this title?

Well I was trying to think of a title that would on the one hand highlight the motif of repetition but would also trace a lineage from the past, to the present and the future. I am a big fan of William Gibson’s cyberpunk writing, so his novel Pattern Recognition came to mind, purely by way of association. However, there’s definitely a speculative quality to many of the works. Noor Abed’s project is all about trying to piece together information on the sighting of a UFO in the West Bank village of Bir Nabala. Asma Ghanem’s audio performance combines electronics with the sounds of war in a really interesting way.

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Ruba Salameh, يم/Ym/ Yamm/ (open sea), 2016. Video still. Image courtesy of the artist

In her video Ym/Yamm/(Open Sea) Ruba Salameh brings together what is at the present moment a geographic and political science fiction: the sea at Gaza, the sea at Tantoura within the 1948 borders and Jerusalem all in one image. And also Aya Kirresh’s investigation of the use of concrete in Palestine by looking at the properties of cement mixtures throughout history is open-ended.

On a more tongue-in-cheek level I wish for this show to reconstitute old and familiar patterns and become an emancipatory tool for articulating a alternative imaginary. This being said, I am well aware that there’s a darker sub-text to the title that refers to military technologies of control and discipline. And though this is not overtly present in the exhibition, this is very much the reality the artists live and work in.

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Aya Kirresh, a concrete ode to history, 2016. Freely formed sculptures of various mortar mixtures on the curing table. Photo by: Dia Joubeh

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Aya Kirresh, a concrete ode to history, 2016. Concrete cylinder made out of poured layers of different historical mortar mixtures. Image courtesy of the artist

I obviously know far less than you do about Palestine.  But it feels like the Palestinian identity is very fragmented because of geographical constraints and because of forced displacements. Talking about the artists, you mentioned in a previous email conversation we had “Their experience is very different from a 1948 Palestinian with an Israeli passport or someone with Jerusalem ID. I’ve had to switch realities every time, working with these artists.” Could you expand a bit on these experiences? What realities does a Palestinian artist have to face in their international career if they are from Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank or live as a refugee somewhere else?

I would say that freedom of movement (mobility), security – in different degrees and kind – very much determine the types of access and possibilities available to Palestinian artists. For example, for a Palestinian artist with an Israeli passport it is much easier to obtain visas and travel abroad. If they want to see shows throughout the whole of Israel and study at Israeli institutions, they can. The downside is that it is very difficult – if not impossible – for them to travel throughout the Arab world, except for Egypt and Jordan, countries with a peace treaty with Israel.

And then there’s the example of Majdal Nateel, who lives in Gaza. I could not get her, or her work out of Gaza. The Israelis just did not give her a permit. We had to reproduce her twenty-six gypsum sculptures, and while we did our utmost best and the sculptures look great, it will always miss the artist’s personal touch. Worse is that she will not be present at the opening of her own show and will not be able to meet with curators, journalists and her peers.

Another example is Somar Sallam, born and raised in Damascus, and now a war refugee in Algeria. She made her first ever video and being located in a small town hundreds of kilometres from the capital she had to work with a video editor in Beirut. Working remotely like that is always difficult. Also Somar will not be able to come to Ramallah for the show. I do find these stories heart-breaking and it really pains me they will be unable to attend the show and that I have only met with them over skype and email.

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Majdal Nateel’s gypsum pillows at Dar Saa. Photo: Nat Muller

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Majdal Nateel, Dream Is Possible, 2016. Sculptural installation, details. Gypsum and earth. Image courtesy of the artist

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Majdal Nateel, Dream Is Possible, 2016. Sculptural installation, details. Gypsum and earth. Image courtesy of the artist

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Majdal Nateel, Dream Is Possible, 2016. Sculptural installation, details. Gypsum and earth. Image courtesy of the artist

Of course, i’d also like to ask you about any other challenges you have encountered there while curating and setting up the exhibition. I suspect that curating a show in Ramallah might be different from curating one in Amsterdam. Could you share some of the difficulties and rewarding moments that have paved your work there so far?

It has been very rewarding working so closely with these young artists, gaining their trust and mentoring them. I am always impressed with the resilience I find in places like Palestine and the insistence to produce art, often against the odds. That is in and by itself a political act. Though I have worked in the region for over a decade, it is still challenging working on a project like this. One of the reasons is the one cited above: Palestine’s fragmented geography and the difficulty of mobility. This also translates in limited resources, from sourcing the right audio-visual equipment or other materials, to certain types of expertise and know-how. Due to the volatility of the political situation and possible closures, you never know who will make it to the exhibition as far as audience goes.

It is difficult to write about Palestine without mentioning demolition, war, occupation, displacement, drones and discrimination, but there are also moments of lightness and beauty in the works exhibited. Could you tell us about the hope, happiness and positive messages in the exhibition?

Absolutely! Producing art under these trying circumstances is already a message of hope in and by itself. What I wished for the exhibition and the individual works was for them to convey politics through poetics. I do think we have managed to do that.

Lately I have been quoting this phrase by Antonio Gramsci quite a lot: “The old world is dying, and the new world is struggling to come forth; now is the time of monsters.” I feel that Gramsci’s words, written when he was languishing in Mussolini’s prison in the 1930s, describe our unruly times very well. It is important to insist that other worlds, other imaginaries, are possible in these times of monsters.

I think the show will tour after Ramallah. I’ve just read that it is going to be exhibited next year at one of my favourite art venues in London, the Mosaic Rooms. Are there any other cities where we can hope to see the show?

Not yet, but would love to hear your suggestions, Régine!

Thanks Nat!

The A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Pattern Recognition: Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA) opens on October 8–31, 2016 at Beit Saa, Beit Saa, a traditional house in the centre of Ramallah in Palestine .
The exhibition will travel to the Mosaic Rooms in London 20 January to 25 March 2017.