Thursday, September 10, 2009

The ghost in the art work

I write a poem, then I place it in a drawer. There it stays for months before I visit it again. If I found that it resembled me then, I consider that I have not done much. If I felt as if someone else had written it, when it strikes me as an Other’s poetry, I tell myself, that I have accomplished something.
Mahmoud Darwich, Palestine as a metaphor, 1997.

Like most expats these days, I often end up in Europe for a few days, as I transit between the Middle-East and North America. When my ticket leaves me in Paris, I make it a point to visit l’Institut du Monde Arabe. This summer, I was lucky enough to stumble upon an exposition of contemporary Palestinian artists, most of whom are around my age, that is early thirties. For someone whose engagement with Palestinian music and cultural production often led her to baby-boomers and survivors of the 1960s (read the 1967 war and subsequent death of pan-Arab nationalism), I was very curious to find out what the children of these artists and events, figuratively speaking, had to say about the world they live in today. A world of utter indifference to the Palestinians, of disillusionment with peace processes, and with the dreams of liberation movements and their nationalist projects. A world where art is as entangled as it has ever been in a promise of borderlessness, constantly broken by geopolitics, cultural politics, identity politics and the unabated exercise of power.

I was quite surprised, or perhaps I shouldn’t be, to discover that the paintings and installations dealt with familiar themes – exile, displacement, memory, history, identity, violence, checkpoints – albeit in very different and innovative ways. I saw no real dividing line between Palestinian artists of my generation and their predecessors whose evocations of exile where intimately attached to an imagined Palestinian homeland. One of the works that moved me was by Steve Sabella, titled In Exile (2008), in which he had taken a seemingly dull picture of the windows facing his own apartment building in an ordinary London neighborhood and juxtaposed endless inverted reproductions of it, creating a visual illusion of movement and infinity through the classical techniques of geometrical repetition, symmetry and complementarity that are associated with the arabesque form. Exile can be quite uneventful, monotonous and redundant, a sort of continuous movement without every getting anywhere. There is nothing heroic about being just another tenant in a shapeless apartment building, no matter how tragic the events that led to you living there are. The sense of solitude, alienation and powerlessness the work expressed left me with a knot in my stomach, especially when I look outside my own window and see the long lines of eerily similar houses, clones really, that make an ordinary Canadian suburban neighborhood.

Another work, by Sherif Waked, titled Chic Point (2003), featured a fashion show, not unlike the spring and winter défilés that attract fashionistas to Paris every year. Nothing special about the models either, who all fit into the Westernized standards of beauty. The clothes portrayed could’ve been designed by Calvin Klein, if it weren’t for the gaping hole the suits had around the stomach and the back. It doesn’t take long for the observer to understand the meaning of the holes, as Palestinians living under Israeli rule are required to expose their stomachs and their backs daily at checkpoints for soldiers supposedly looking for bomb-belts.

Following Rodney Place’s thoughts on the role that galleries and other cultural mediators play in the dissemination of contemporary art, and the perversion of its meaning and value, I can’t help but wonder about the transparency of the meanings expressed through these works. In Chic point, the artist wanted to make sure we understood the meaning of the holes, not only by his choice of title, but also by including a video within the fashion show of Palestinians being asked to strip at checkpoints. Is it that these works really do speak in clear and articulate voices about a universal human condition that any observer can identify with? Is it that the signs that inform the works are simply superficial and easy to interpret without much controversy or need for deep exegesis? Is it that all Palestinian artists speak from a similar place and follow a shared leitmotiv? Or was it a question of selection, in the sense that, only those works that did express clearly the plight of the Palestinians and their struggle with identity, exile and displacement ended up in the gallery?

Palestinian artists have constantly struggled with their work being interpreted through the paradigm of identity and liberation politics. Mahmoud Darwich was quite vocal about this issue, and has been known to reward an admirer with a symbolic slap in the face when he or she dared remind him of his public consecration as Palestine’s poet. Yet, he refused to give up political poetry as a way out of it, and has been even more outspoken about what he saw as an unhealthy turn in the Arab world to an unnecessarily opaque, obscenely aestheticized form of poetic writing with grandiose claims of subversion and liberation from the tyranny of the classical Arabic meter, while leaving the reader (and reality along with him) completely out of the loop.

Contrary to Rodney Place’s experience with the ever increasing degrees of separation between the artist and his/her work through the intervention of dissemination, and the manipulation of various mediators, Palestinian artists have virtually no breathing room between their creations and themselves. Dissemination, in their case, propels every individual creative act in a boomerang motion that slings the work away from the artist only to see it return and collapse into his/her identity and the politics that stem from it. It is no wonder then that Darwich considers his poems to be worthy, only when they become strangers to him, or him a stranger to them.

In his writings, and many interviews, there is a constant search for the ghost in the art work, that entropic presence that allows it to escape all the discourses around it, including his own. Of course, what Place is arguing, is that this kind of transcendental experience has become virtually impossible to achieve, in a time when the work can no longer exist on its own without a constellation of discourses to interpret it, criticize it, measure its value, and so on. In my own work with contemporary Western art music composers, I was astonished to discover how crucial the discourse built around their work has become for the value of the work, as well as for their own value and recognition as artists. Composers today are required, not only to write music, but to theorize it, sell it and sell themselves with it. I had many conversations where we ended up engaging in a call and response song of reciprocal theorization of their music. They have become virtuoso performers in an increasingly cacophonous scene of competing discourses.

Both experiences with discourse on art, whether it is of the collapse of degrees of separation, or the perpetual hijacking of the work from the artist, are different sides of the same coin, minted and traded, as Place as rightly pointed out, by various mediators and actors – states through their culture ministries and art councils, transnational organizations through the UNESCO and development agencies representing various “donating” states, like the International Canadian Development Agency, to take a local example, not to mention humanitarian NGOs.

In Palestine, in the aftermath of the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, NGOs that were already acting like local government institutions for years were handed an enormous amount of power and resources as a way for Western countries to absolve themselves of the guilt of cutting aid to the Palestinians because they voted for the wrong party. Besides Christian missionary organizations that have been present for as long as Palestine has been Palestine, musicians and other artists rely heavily on funding from, interestingly enough, Scandinavian cultural NGOs who support the establishment of institutions like the Edward Saïd National Conservatory of Music in the West Bank, the formation of various orchestras and chamber ensembles, and the launching of programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian children together through music camps.

That reliance is partly due to the Palestinian Authority’s own failure. Allegations of corruption and oppression were rampant in the dying days of the Oslo accords so these NGOs filled a huge vacuum just as Palestinian artists where moving in their work away from Palestine as an object of representation and adoration, to the Palestinian as a subject and tragic figure. The combination of both trends brought about the establishment of various instrumental music and dance ensembles, as well as contemporary art expositions focused on highlighting Middle-Eastern contemporary art forms as opposed to folklore, or in some cases, turning folklore into a new form of aestheticized art form.

The relation to Scandinavian countries is noteworthy as they are represented as beacons of a successful and pragmatic leftism. This resonates with Place’s observation on the substitution of real and hard to implement political solutions by European lefties with feel-good cultural projects. But the history between Scandinavian countries and the Palestinians is deeper still. In Palestinian anthropology, one of the very first Western ethnographic accounts of Palestinian life that did not involve turning them into anachronical remnants of a biblical past, happens to have been produced by a Finnish scholar, Hilma Granqvist, who on a mission with a group of German biblical researchers at the turn of the 20th century, decided that studying the present and the Palestinians as people living in the present was much more interesting. She produced several volumes of classic kinship anthropology on a Palestinian village. Nevertheless, her Ph.D was never approved. And there are the Oslo accords of course.

This is all to say, that Scandinavian interventionism in Palestine has deep roots and the long term cultural and political impact of Scandinavian NGOs’ contemporary cultural pedagogical project aimed at turning potential “terrorists” into violinists will take years to assess. There is no need to highlight the echoes of such a project with French colonialism’s “civilizing” mission in its former colonies. Suffice it to say that since Granqvist’s first visit to Palestine, all this interventionism and humanism has not affected the conflict or made the lives of Palestinians any better.

For those musicians who want to get out from under the umbrella of such charityism, one other option is available to them: The world music international festival circuit and collaborations with Western musicians on various artistic projects. But there too, such collaborations come with political and aesthetic strings. Many Palestinian musicians end up, in fact, living in Europe, and being part of a continuous cultural brain-drain. They gain success and recognition in diaspora but are often unknown in their own country.

In places where the state is powerless, and where power is still in the hands of colonial actors, art becomes a devastating instrument of control and inaction. On the one hand, it provides an effective alibi for all those former colonial powers to keep doing nothing about the situation of the Palestinians. Building a music school is much easier to achieve then demolishing Israeli colonies. On the other hand, it acts as a sort of opium (as opposed to religion), a pacifying drug that provides Palestinians with a controllable outlet for expressing their anger and despair, a sort of therapeutic remedy to the chronic disease of occupation that is not meant to cure it, but only make it easier to live with and be resigned to it. Western cultural agencies are not unlike pharmaceutical companies or drug dealers that create the disease or addiction only to sell the victims a life-style drug to consume for the rest of their lives.

This is indeed quite a perversion of the role that art and cultural production has tended to play in postcolonial societies dealing with the legacy of colonialism. We have effectively moved from art being deployed as an instrument of nation-building and political resistance against colonialism to it becoming medicinal marijuana for the damned of the Earth. The ghost in the art work turns out to be just a hallucination, produced by a powerful drug.

I believe that art is a site where suffering can be differed, allowing society to escape auto-destructive impulses that result from a history of violence. However, it can also become a drug in contemporary societies where there is no longer any tolerance for suffering. For the rich, in Northern countries, it often turns into a recreative drug, consumed by cultural bulimics who have no aesthetic preoccupation or the capacity to appreciate aesthetics, but entertain the need to produce, or more precisely, to push for the production and surproduction of more art to keep getting high.

In the South, it can either lead to some form of individual, with certain artworks, collective, catharsis that may contribute to healing social and historical wounds, or when pushed by others, it can become a powerful sedative so the North may continue to enjoy their high without having to hear the South’s cries.

Yara El-Ghadban