The invitation to contribute to the "Extreme" issue of OnCurating triggers questions about the notion of extreme and extremity of action, ability, position, distance, measure, and condition. However, what would happen if the extreme met its limit? But, maybe it’s already happened?
Since WWII, western, northern, and central Europe has stopped fighting on its soil. Internationally, the patronage of the United States has permitted conflicts to be 'played out' on distant territories and with relatively little direct European engagement. How has this affected the culture and society in this part of Europe? Is a society that did not experience a direct conflict different from the one that has had such a fundamental experience within active living memory? If conflicts shape our societies, how we can measure them, or point them out for joint discussion? Does conflict only manifest itself as personal experience, or are there cultural phenomena that we can observe and discuss in terms of conflict as something to be held in common?
In comparison with the other continents over the past seventy years, (w,n,c) Europe seems to be an exception in terms of conflict within Europe, but further east in the former Yugoslavia or Britain and Ireland, ethnic and religious conflicts have been a more recent part of lived experience, and the words “conflict” or “troubles” are common expressions to describe conditions other than those between 1940 and 1945. In the European middle ground, the still buried traumas of WWII have promoted the avoidance of conflict, and the construction of consensus has been highly prized ever since. Even occasionally, the violent political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s did not fundamentally disturb this trend and ended in the entrenchment of the status quo. The rubric “Never Again” has pushed many things under the carpet, namely 400 years of a violent colonial past and the transatlantic slave trade.
In these circumstances, questions about how to deal with disagreements or inevitable conflicts in our lives are avoided and repressed, especially as there are no easily available models to learn how to live together in conflict, or how conflicts could have or have not potentially progressive outcomes.
Today’s North American and European democratic societies have a high number of new mental phenomena—burnout, especially among workers; a massive amount of resources devoted to simply fabricating happiness, coolness, and detachment. Creating superficially satisfied psyches ends up producing a form of quietism, passivity, and inaction toward the world, in a period that the political and institutional environment needs serious questioning, especially as it seems not unrelated to the chronic dissatisfaction, anger, anxiety and alienation that those psychological treatments address.
Whoever is angry, the surrounding culture overwhelmingly tells argumentative people that their anger is just a reflection of their private conflicts and inadequacies. The requirement is on the individuals to manage their ‘private’ emotions, and any failure to do so only shows (their) incompetence. But, are dissatisfaction, anger, anxiety, and alienation are private problems? Are there no systemic and chronic conditions that will produce conflict whatever an individual’s psychology? To quote Eva Illuoz, "Of all emotions, anger is probably the most political one: without it, one can hardly think of revolutions, demonstrations and social protest."[i]
In 2001, I returned to Israel from the Netherlands to establish the Israeli Centre for Digital Art (DAL - Digital Art Lab[ii]) in Holon. I served as the director for over a decade, with a mission, or the task we took upon ourselves, to try and connect art practitioners from neighboring countries to the ones in Israel. Such a task was not an obvious or easy one to achieve and was not considered a priority for the local art scene, and could not yield fast results for several reasons. For instance, artists from Syria and Lebanon were (and are still today) not allowed to maintain contact or co-exhibit with Israeli artists, since these are deemed as being in contact with an enemy agent in their respective countries. The situation is different when it comes to artists from Egypt or Jordan, countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel. Yet, artists from these countries have generally avoided co-exhibiting or cooperating with Israeli artists because of the prevalent social norms.[iii] Israeli artists, in contrast, do not have a similar limitation or prohibition to co-exhibit or work together with artists from Arab or Muslim countries, but at the same time, no will to do so.
Much of DAL’s curation endeavored to challenge the Israeli canon, often through indirect action, namely by reference to other conflicts that could be projected onto the situation in Israel. The latter included work with curators and artists from Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, and Turkey. Artists from these regions were invited to exhibit, thereby sketching analogies between Israel and these loci in regard to conflict, ethnic cleansing, territorial struggle, violent nationalism, denial of the freedom of the individual, and control of citizens’ mobility. The emphasis was to generate empathy for the victims of other wars or conflicts and to sketch an analogy between these "other" conflicts and our reality, without confronting at first sight the exhibition’s audiences, as a direct confrontation might have led to a rejection of the views and messages of the exhibition altogether.
The exhibition trilogy Hilchot Shchenim[iv] (Neighbors' Laws[v]) (2003 - 2005) sought to create a cultural platform for collaborations between artists and art institutes from the Mediterranean Basin, the former Eastern European block, and the Balkans.
It gave rise, among other things, to the engagement with the Artists Without Walls'[vi] action on the evening of April 1, 2004, on both sides of the newly built separation wall that crosses through Ras-Kubsa, a Palestinian neighborhood of Abu-Dis near Jerusalem.
Two closed-circuit video cameras were positioned at the same spot on both sides of the separation wall. Each camera transmitted the view facing away from its adjacent wall, while each one was connected to a video projector that showed an image of the opposite side in real time. The two video projections together created a virtual window in the wall that allowed Abu-Dis inhabitants from both sides to see each other and interact or talk using their personal cell phones.
We wrote a short manifesto that read:
Media is a tool for bringing far away events of violence and war into people’s living rooms. It is also a weapon participating in the fight over public opinion and forming the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in those wars. In this project the cameras were recording and transmitting from only one meter away, inverting a technology used for controlling and governing the population in that place, we created a spectacle aimed to attract media attention to the harsh human situation.
The Separation Wall now being constructed in the West Bank is a monument to failure and a testament to pessimism. The Wall aspires to bring security to Israelis by separating Palestinians and Israelis. In practice, however, the real separation which the Wall creates is that between Palestinians and their families, jobs, hospitals and schools. Furthermore, the construction of the wall is expropriating land and houses owned by Palestinian people. In effect, this is a wall of occupation.
The segregation and confinement of people is only another step towards alienating Palestinians and Israelis from one another and dehumanizing the conflict. When one ceases to view the other side as made out of individuals with hopes and dreams, violence becomes much easier and the results are tragic for both sides.
Through nonviolent and creative actions, “Artists Without Walls” seeking to eradicate the lines of separation and the rhetoric of alienation and racism. "Artists Without Walls" - a permanent forum for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian engaged in all fields of art and culture.[vii]
However, there was also a blind spot among us (the Israelis) and a lesson to learn from this action, as artists from Ramallah could not come to the action even though it was in East Jerusalem.
Liminal Spaces[viii] (2006-2009) emerged from the need to understand how the segregation system functions. Liminal Spaces primarily aspired to establish the absent but essential platform for joint work, action, and dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli art communities. It aimed to be a platform that could exist despite the growing difficulties experienced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation, such as the denial of freedom of movement and elementary rights. The basis for the project was an objection to the occupation and separation policy and hatred propaganda, which has been preserved throughout its phases with its most radical manifestation. Together with Reem Fadda, the director of PACA (Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art[ix]), architect Philipp Misselwitz, teaching at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and Eyal Danon from DAL, we created a collective of micro-residencies, a production platform, a series of interventions, and site-specific seminars composed into one project.
Palestinian, Israeli, and international artists[x] were invited to attend three seminars and to develop a research project or new artwork. Three seminars were held as part of Liminal Spaces. These were based on hikes and tours from morning till midday that were guided by scholars, professionals, and activists from different disciplines such as sociology, history, architecture, and urban planning. In retrospect, one of the most challenging aspects of the project was to try to adapt our movements to the dynamic reality of political tension and military maneuvers. At the outset, we postulated that a network of collaboration and sharing of knowledge was crucial to such a project. Yet, we could not foresee how such a platform would evolve since we had no model or experience of a similar project that was operated under the conditions of military occupation. Together with the artists, we, the project initiators, sought methodologies that would support the artists’ practice through examining the liminality of physical and mental spaces between zone A and zone C.[xi]
Alongside the scrutiny of the mental and physical spaces together with the shared effort of artists, academic scholars, architects, and political activists, we managed to establish an infrastructure for the production of works. But, most importantly, we succeeded in creating the basis for ongoing communication and trust between the different partners of the project, which years later serves as a platform for other art practitioners interactions between Palestine and Israel.[xii]
During the project, we had to reiterate and clarify our aims repeatedly. We underscored the fact that this was not an attempt at normalization, and that it was not meant to offer a model for peaceful coexistence between two equal partners. Rather, we asserted that the main aim of the project was to provide a platform of resistance and vocal opposition to the ongoing Israeli occupation and its direct effects on the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. Liminal Spaces operated in a context in which the distinctions between art and politics were blurred (part of the office activity of DAL was to help Palestinians to receive a permit to enter Israel). We wished to examine the possible role of art as a catalyst for political and social change in order to trigger a more active form of political engagement within the art world. We felt that the clear political stance of the participants and the curators was the very basis for the network that Liminal Spaces offered.
Reem Fadda, together with Khaled Hourani, approached the Tanzim,[xiii] the military wing of Fatah that controlled Kalandia refugee camp,[xiv] for permission and protection, which they were granted. They also sought approval from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI[xv]) that was coming into formation at that time. PACBI wanted to avoid the illusion of reconciliation and asked for a written statement that avoids terms such as “collaboration” because of its “informant” connotation—particularly referring to Palestinians that were forced to supply the Israeli military with information. PACBI also recommended that Liminal Spaces not accept Israeli state funding.
Despite all the difficulties and obstacles, the artists were determined to continue working; they ended up presenting a series of new works that examined the conditions of dally of physical, cultural, and mental segregation within the reality of the occupation. These artworks suggested the potential of art to serve as a tool for challenging power structures within the radically divided and fragmented urban region of Jerusalem / Ramallah—a laboratory for urbanism and radical ethnic separation. The third and the last seminar of Liminal Spaces operated back to back with the Second Riwaq Biennale[xvi] (2007), we shared travel expenses and provided invitations to visit Israel,[xvii] to these artists that came from abroad to participate in the Riwaq Biennale.
Many artworks were developed and produced under Liminal Spaces but never exhibited together under one framework, to mention a few: Yael Bartana’s Summer Camp and Peter Friedl’s taxidermied giraffe, both premiered at documenta 12 (2007), Yochai Avrahami’s piece showed at the Taipei Biennial in 2008. The Danish collective, Superflex, organized an appeal to the European Broadcasting Union to include Palestine in the Eurovision Song Contest.[xviii] Azra Aksamija produced the Frontier Vest. At the same time, Jumana Emil Abboud performed Smuggling Lemons, which had several components following smuggling operations.
Europe Never Again
The Mideast Summit (2008 - 2009) was an opportunity to sow the seeds for the future regional network. Given DAL’s trust network among local actors, as well as a reputation for several successful projects, we were offered a support grant by German federal organization[xix] in order to continue and develop our vision for the MENA region. However, the hesitation in generating an illusion of a normalized reality between Palestinian and Israeli art practitioners operating together led us to accept the grant with one condition: that we do not have to produce anything in return, no outcome or visibility. We offered a series of meetings among art practitioners from the MENA region to study the conditions in which each one of us is operating.
“The goal of these meetings will be to gain an understanding of the different work environments and cultural conditions in which the participants operate. We will then analyze the professional possibilities for action in each case, and go on to investigate how we may create a shared and inclusive work environment for the different participants. In order to facilitate such cooperation and to develop a potential series of methodologies for such, we need to meet each other regularly and to discuss things further over an extended, though a limited time. These meetings should all be confirmed in advance so that we know in advance what space and time we have. This proposal is therefore written to secure dedicated support for this series of meetings, which will be among artists, curators and cultural actors from the Near/Middle East and North Africa. The purpose of these meetings is to initially create an open context in which we can understand the work environments of the different participants; the structure of each art field; the problems they face in terms of funding, censorship, production and its subsequent reactions; as well as the relationships between art and the political regime and between politics and economic power. The goal of this project is to gain knowledge of different cultural fields in order to create a professional and cultural agenda that is compatible with the expectations of the various participants.”[xx]
Yet, as an Israeli public art institution, it was unlikely that any art practitioner from the MENA region would accept an invitation from us,[xxi] even if the budget for the summit came from Germany with small additions from the Netherlands. Therefore, we proposed that these meetings needed to take place outside the region, where the invitees could travel without a complicated process to obtain visas. We secured assistance and facilities from the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands. Two meetings were held in the museum, and one meeting took place in Istanbul, one in Rabat, and the last one in Alexandria; in the last two meetings, the participants became the hosts and prepared the program for each summit meeting.
Checkpoints and restrictions on movement are not unique to the case of Palestine and Israel or between Israel and neighboring countries; in fact, crossing borders and restricting movement between citizens of MENA is complex and sometimes impossible. But without the attempt to bring together cultural practitioners from the region, it was impossible for us to know how complex this actually is. Younes Bouadi, today the head of production and research at Studio Jonas Staal, wrote about the situation in the region and the summit potentiality: “The Middle East Summit is the unofficial name for a series of meetings between several key figures from the Middle Eastern art world. The reason this summit was held in Eindhoven came from the necessity to have a mutual place where several members of the international art community from the Middle East could come together. This was a solution for the problem that several nationalities from the Arab world, such as Lebanese and Syrians, are not allowed to travel to Israel, while Israelis cannot travel to those Arab countries.”[xxii]
On the Van Abbemuseum's website, Charles Esche, the director of the museum, wrote: "In parallel to this process of encountering new influences in the Middle East meetings, the workers at the museum have been investigating a separate but connected question for ourselves; that is, what are the potential capacities of the European art museum of the 21st century? While western modernist universalism and European cultural hegemony are discredited concepts, the image of what may come to replace them is still barely discernable. One result is that in Europe we are forced to think about what we want to preserve or pass on to an emerging cosmopolitanism from this modern culture for which we were largely responsible. We can assume that the cultural values in formation will no longer be only ‘western’ in origin, but we do not know which precise elements of former western ethical and cultural inventions will be valid for the future.”[xxiii]
In the context of this summit, Khaled Hourani proposed bringing a Picasso from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum to the IAAP, which is headed by him. As he stated, this would create a sense of what he referred to as “normality”; Palestine had to be on the international art map as a place where a Picasso could and would be able to go. The integration of Palestine within the contemporary art world, by means of the displaced Picasso, would thus be a metaphor for Palestine’s possible recognition by the United Nations. The freedom of art would thus in a certain way represent the “democracy to come.”[xxiv]
In June 2011, a single painting by Pablo Picasso was presented at IAAP. The legend has it that this was the first time a work of a European Master was presented in Palestine. In the past ten years, Picasso in Palestine became a symbol of the triumph of art over the crimes of the occupation, reminding one of Picasso's famous phrase “Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”[xxv]
Hourani's imaginative proposition, which connects the presentation of Pablo Picasso's painting in Palestine to the recognition of Palestine as a state by the United Nations, did not emerge as a rootless fantasy or mere artistic imagination. The link between museums and nation-building is rooted in mid-eighteenth century, a link that has not weakened to this day, but on the contrary has become stronger. In the case of Israel, the role museums have played in the (re)construction of (national) identity, the melting pot of the clannish Israeli population and as soft power in the hand of the state diplomacy is well known. Hourani's proposition follows the Israeli national mythology, which ties the notion's birth to the modern art museum. The Israeli ethos is that on Friday, May 14, 1948, the Declaration of Independence by the state of Israel was proclaimed at the museum building, at 16 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. A year later, on May 11, 1949, Israel was formally declared a member of the U.N.[xxvi] Tel Aviv Museum was established in 1932, at the persuasion of Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor.
When Khaled Hourani offered to bring Picasso to Ramallah, he had in mind the propagation of a positive message from the Palestinian occupied territories to the world. Soft power is essential in a conflict situation, as non-coercive political values. Soft power works through attraction; as Joseph Nye[xxvii] argues, soft power changes the behavior of others by changing their preferences. Soft power is cheaper, more effective, and more sustainable than hard power, which changes behavior through intimidation and coercion.
However, much has been written about Picasso in Palestine; the contemporary art scene in Ramallah had never received such generous media coverage nor had the Van Abbemuseum in the south of the Netherlands. But what happened there? Who ensured bringing the precious piece to its destination? Who were the collaborators who rendered the project possible? It is clear to everyone that there is no possibility of smuggling an artwork with an insurance value of 4.3 million US dollar (according to the IDF’s spokesperson blog)[xxviii] through a military checkpoint without prior coordination with the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Michael Baers writes in the introduction to An Oral History of Picasso in Palestine:
The project had induced in me a kind of vertigo, a sense of the temporal going in two directions: into the future where the appearance of a Picasso in Ramallah seemed to presage Palestine’s further integration into the global art network, and into the past, back to the beginnings of the story, whichever date one chose for its inception—the proximate beginning of the project or the proximate beginning of the conflict itself. To my mind, the interaction of these two orientations created a complex of shifting temporalities of such instability dialectical thinking was no longer adequate to describe their behavior—a sense of time out of joint matching the fragmented space of occupation—the space-out-of-joint created by the Oslo map, hidden behind an ever-lengthening barrier of sectional concrete slabs. The Buste de femme’s fractured modernist space encountered this disorder; encountered as well the tiny white cube constructed for the Buste de femme in the Academy’s single classroom, like a reduction of any museum gallery in the West.[xxix]
Pablo Picasso's Buste de femme (1943), acquired in 1956 by Edy de Wilde, the first director of the Van Abbemuseum (1946-1963) after the war. He acquired the painting from the Parisian Galerie Leiris[xxx], (whose reputation has been linked to the sales of looted art objects[xxxi],) in the amount of 400,000 French Francs (around 4,000 euros today). The history of modern art misses one of the pillars that shaped the period: “During the German occupation of the Netherlands, which lasted from May 1940 until May 1945, a hausse took place on the Dutch art market. During this boom—which started immediately after the Dutch capitulation—everyone, from people with low disposable incomes to those with almost unlimited funds, suddenly wanted to acquire works of art. Prices and turnover multiplied as both Dutch and German buyers scrambled to purchase not only works of art of the highest quality, but also kitsch and everything in between.”[xxxii]
Provoking the status-quo around “art and social change” may liberate us from an equation in which art needs to justify its existence based on the transaction of values, virtue into market value. Therefore, to shy away from the mimetic and the glorification of the charismatic genius, the artists, the curator, and the museum director allowed for a new agreement between art and society to be signed based on social imagination.
Galit Eilat is an interdependent curator and writer based in Amsterdam. Since 2018, she has been the director of Meduza Foundation. Her projects seek to develop conditions that enable collective encounters and experiences, underpinned by a critical view towards the status quo. Pivotal to her projects is the process of knowledge dissemination, which departs from the ethos that art is charged with the potential to ignite social change. Her current research trajectories deal with the Syndrome of the Present, Art in Dark Times, and Picasso’s Heritage.
In 2001, she founded the Israeli Center for Digital Art, where she served as director for ten years. In 2004, she co-founded Maarav, an online arts and culture magazine, and in 2007, she co-founded the Mobile Archive. She co-initiated the traveling seminar series, Liminal Spaces, a platform for joint work and dialogue between Palestinians, Israelis, and international artists in 2006-2008. She served as the first artistic director of the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne in 2013. Among others, she curated and co-curated projects such as VideoZone 4 – Video Art Biennial in Tel Aviv, And Europe will be stunned – Yael Bartana in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the 32nd October Salon, Belgrade, and 31st São Paulo Bienial. International collaborations have included projects with Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; National Gallery, Kosovo; Kunsthaus Bregenz; MG + MSUM, Ljubljana; SALT, Istanbul; Malmö Konst-museum; Serralves Museum and more.
[iv]Hilchot Schenim (checked 13/02/2021)
[vii] April 1st. Link to the video documentation: https://videopress.com/v/aKwAX2tv.
[x] Artists: Rene Gabri & Ayreen Anastas, Khaled Hourani, Inass Yassin, Sandi Hilal & Alessandro Petti, Yazan Khalili, Suleiman Mansour, Sami Bukhari, Oren Sagiv, Yochai Avrahami, Miri Segal, Tal Adler, Yosi Atia & Itamar Ross, Hagar Goren, Manar Zuabi, Anjalika Sagar & Kodwo Eshun, Lida Abdul, Sanja Ivekovic, Simon Wachsmuth, Mauricio Guillen, Michael Blum, Lia Perjovschi, Hans Bernhard, Solmaz Shahbazi, Artur Zmijewski, Yael Bartana, Oliver Clemens & Sabine Horlitz, Azra Aksamija, Inass Hamad, Jumana Emil Abboud, Ligna, Peter Friedl, Sala-Manca, Sameh Abboushi, Sean Snyder, Superflex.
[xi] Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Ramallah (Area A: Palestinian territory under Palestinian authority) for they could be judged as disobeying the military law that forbids Israelis from entering Palestinian territories. Palestinians, on the other hand, are not allowed to move outside area A or B (Area B: Palestinian territory under Israeli authority): https://conquer-and-divide.btselem.org/map-en.html.
[xii] Liminal Spaces is the only project that operates between a Palestinian institution under Palestinian authority and a public Israeli institution. Other collaborations are between individuals or connected to international bodies.
[xvii] According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I knowingly misled them and the Ministry of Culture when I appealed for their help to assist foreign artists to enter Israel, when, in effect, their goal was to enter the Palestinian Authority. I was also accused of coaching artists on how to respond if questioned at the airport. Some call these acts security offenses, but I was never officially charged. (The price paid was that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs froze its support for the Israeli Center for Digital Art.)
[xix] Most of collaborative projects between Israelis and Palestinians or other neighbors were supported by German funds, in addition to European funds. Today, it would be unthinkable to receive support from Germany as well from the European Union, due to Netanyahu's policies following the 2009 elections. The great success of Netanyahu’s government has been to turn the Palestinians from a political enemy into a mythical enemy.
[xxii] Younes Bouadi, “Picasso in Palestine: Displaced Art and the Borders of Community,” continent 1:3 (2011): 180-186, https://www.academicpublishingplatforms.com/downloads/pdfs/ctn/volume1/201112281234_CTN_Q3_2011_5.pdf
[xxv] Alyssa Buffenstein, 8 Quotes to Celebrate Picasso’s Birthday Artnet 2015. “Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” https://news.artnet.com/art-world/pablo-picasso-birthday-quotes-347585
[xxvi] Tel Aviv Museum of Art - Full Guide - Travel Israel. https://www.israel-in-photos.com/tel-aviv-museum-of-art.html
[xxx] Picasso, Pablo, Buste de femme, 1943 Inv. nr. TMS 387, aangekocht bij Galerie Louise Leiris te Parijs in 1956 (brief van De Wilde aan college van Burgemeester en Wethouders spreek van een aankoop via kunsthandelaar De Haucke, 6 februari 1956. Kan over beide aankopen gaan) Literatuuronderzoek: Opgenomen in H. en S. Janis, Picasso, 1946, pl. 84 Picasso, Pablo, Bust de femme, 1943 Inv. no. TMS 387, purchased at Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris in 1956 (letter from De Wilde to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen speaks of a purchase through art dealer De Haucke, 6 February 1956. Can concern both purchases) Literature review: Included in H. and S. Janis, Picasso, 1946, pl. 84