Posted by: simonsteachingblog | December 27, 2009

Walking the Green Line, running the border

The Lebanese artist Lamia Joreige has produced a number of artworks that address the challenges of constructing a history of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This conflict was particularly complex, with multiple state and non-state antagonists and a complex chronology of events. Like all conflicts, this war becomes even more complex as an object of historical examination when its events are considered in terms of the experiences of individuals. From this perspective, the history of the war becomes something that seems unmanageable. Yet it is in relation to individual experience that Joreige has attempted to understand the current existence of the war as memory. Thus she states, ‘I find myself caught in a tension between the temptation and even necessity of recounting … [the] history [of the war] and the impossibility of fully accessing it’, continuing, ‘in all my work, I point out the impossibility of accessing a complete narrative, thus underlining the loss, the gaps of memory and history.’ (Lamia Joreige, ‘Here and Perhaps Elsewhere’, in Suzanne Cotter, ed., Out of Beirut, Modern Art Oxford, 2006)

Lamia Joreige 'Here and Perhaps Elsewhere' 2003

Joreige’s 54 minute film Here and Perhaps Elsewhere made in 2003 takes us on a journey of remembrance through Beirut, as she travels along the former Green Line that divided the city during the Civil War. At locations that were once crossing-points on the Green Line, Joreige asked people if they knew of anyone having been kidnapped by the militias during the war. Kidnapping was a regular occurrence during this period and a symbolic means of attacking an opposing community. The question provoked multiple answers. Some people said they did not remember, others said they did not want to remember, while others still seemed to remember all to readily. In response to the apparently easy remembrance of these respondents, some people questioned the value of statements made by others, suggesting that these people just speak for the sake of speaking. The sum result of all these answers is a sense that not only was the war a mass of individual experiences, but that in relation to the myriad responses Joreige’s question elicits, it is not possible to distinguish fact from fiction, or genuine forgetting from self-enforced amnesia. One feels no more enlightened on the subject of the war at the end of the film than one did at the beginning. For all the certainties of some of the statements about what happened in particular places at particular times, or about why certain people were kidnapped, one is left feeling uncertain and ambivalent about the meanings of the war. As Joreige’s observations suggest, this is precisely the point of the film. Thus travelling along the Green Line becomes a journey into ambivalence, meaning that the Green Line itself becomes a zone of uncertainty between the former certainties that defined the confessional collectives that opposed each other during the war.

We might link Joreige’s film to another art film made in 2004 by the Belgian (Mexico City based) artist Francis Alÿs, for which he walked along the 1949 ceasefire line, known as the Green Line that divided Jerusalem until June 1967. Alÿs’ walk took two days and involved him dripping a barely noticeable line of green paint along the Green Line.

Francis Alÿs, 'Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line' 2004-05

This act was filmed and the film subsequently shown to various people with different professional backgrounds and different positions in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict defined both by their national status and their specific political outlook. Some were Israelis, some Palestinians, and some foreign nationals. These people were asked to comment while watching the film. The film was then overlaid with the different commentaries and shown in a gallery context as a sequence of different versions of the film under the heading Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line.

Francis Alÿs, 'Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, The Green Line' 2004-05

The commentators on the film used Alÿs’ act of dripping a green line as a pretext for discussing different kinds of boundary between people, analysing the ways that these cultural and political ‘borders’ come in and out of visibility, and how they might be politically reinstituted or dissolved. Thus, for example, the Palestinian anthropologist Rima Hamami discussed Alÿs’ re-visualisation of the Green Line in relation to the possibilities of a two-state or one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution would mean the Green Line once again becoming a national border, while a one-state solution would mean the complete dissolution of the Green Line. In contrast to this, the Israeli activist Ruben Aberjil discussed Alÿs’ green line in relation to the ethnic dividing lines between Askenazi and Sephardic Jews within Israel. The dripped green line was therefore an ambivalent poetic act that enabled, but did not direct discussion: its meaning as a gesture was radically open. As in Joreige’s film, the act of representation turned the former Green Line into a zone of uncertainty. This zone of uncertainty is of particular significance given its wider political context in which antagonistic identities have been premised upon illusions of absolute certainty. The poetic act opens up a space for the exploration of uncertainty in such a way that these absolute certainties might be destabilised and contested.

The poetic gesture might also enable a fault-line to be opened up in the established order of appearance. This is something that Hamami notes in her commentary on Alÿ’s film:

‘It’s also really wonderful because sometimes we get locked into how we see. It is a problem that the world doesn’t hear our story [the Palestinian story], isn’t it? Or our story gets manipulated, and turned on its head, but there is also a problem that we become stuck in the ways that we see things over and over again. So it’s also really wonderful to have somebody coming who is not coming to aggressively say who we are, or what things are, but is making an empathetic act, and at the same time is pushing us to maybe see things or to think about things in different types of ways. And the other part of it, I think, is that things here are so saturated and overdetermined in terms of representation and discourse, power and politics, that it’s extremely hard to find a way to break through that, in any way. I think poetic acts are one way of breaking through that.’

These observations are close to Jacque’s Ranciére’s comments on Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographic project ‘WB’ for which she photographed unmanned rubble barricades constructed by the Israeli army during the Second Intifada to block Palestinian vehicular movement in the West Bank.

Sophie Ristelhueber, 'WB' 2005

For Ranciére these landscape type images introduce something new into the established field of representation that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consequently he states: ‘Sophie Ristelhueber has in fact refused to photograph the great separation wall that embodies the policy of a state and is the media icon of the “Middle East problem” … In this way, she perhaps effects a displacement of the exhausted affect of indignation to a more discreet affect, an affect of indeterminate effect – curiosity, the desire to see closer up.’ (Jacques Ranciére, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009, p. 104) By focusing on the ambivalent status of the Green Line as the former border of the Israeli state and as a boundary that has been made invisible since 1967 through the Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem, rather than concentrating on more obvious demarcation lines or points, Alÿs also creates a frame for potentially reflective curiosity and for a sense of uncertainty about the meaning of this boundary.

What is the value of this sense of uncertainty? What might it do for us? Its value is not simply that it leaves us unclear about that which was thought to be certain. Uncertainly should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. What is this end? Is it not simply that in contexts defined by political antagonisms premised on ideological certainties, uncertainty clears some ground on which alternative political associations might be founded? Is it not that uncertainty can contribute to the reorganisation of people, ideas, acts, and practices in terms of the setting up of new political struggles? Thus uncertainty is a first step in a potential process of declassification that is central to the challenging and reorganisation of the political given, a reorganisation that will involve alternative forms of the opposition between ‘we’ and ‘them’ that Chantal Mouffe has argued is fundamental to what she terms ‘the political’ (See Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, Routledge, 2005).

In the case of Joreige’s journey along the former Green Line in Beirut, the value of the kind of uncertainty she presents in relation to the history of the Lebanese Civil War might be related to the contestation of a national political system that continues to be based on ethnic-confessional divisions. The new ‘we’ that might be prompted by this sense of uncertainty could be a cross-confessional one based upon a shared experience of relative exclusion from the existing political order; a ‘we’ defined not in terms of ethnicity and religion, but in terms of class. In the case of Alÿs’ Green Line walk across Jerusalem, the value of uncertainty might be understood in terms of the creation of political spaces where a joint Palestinian and Israeli ‘we’ can find grounds for agreement in opposition to the ‘they’ of the Israeli state.

The general point to be made here is that the artworks by Joreige and Alÿs do not find their potential political value in uncertainty per se, but in terms of where that uncertainty might lead for the spectator as someone who appropriates the work for their own purposes. Thus the value of aesthetic uncertainty in these instances is that the spectator might use it to unpick and de-naturalize a hegemonic order that has appeared unquestionable. Thus what Janet Wolff has termed the ‘aesthetics of uncertainty’ (Janet Wolff, The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, Columbia University Press, 2008), can constitute a resource for the development of new political projects and communities that seek to contest current hegemonies. Such anti-hegemonic projects cannot dispense with the political beliefs that are necessary for the creation of political communities – beliefs in values of democracy and equality, for example – however the agonistic struggles that define these projects might also be premised on a sense of the contingency of all political orders. Starting out from a condition of uncertainty might therefore enable political protagonists to avoid the absolutist and extremely violent antagonisms that defined the Lebanese War and continue to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The journeys along different Green Lines undertaken by Joreige and Alÿs have both transformed these former lines of division into imaginative spaces of uncertainty. As such these explorations of the Green Line as reality and concept seem close to Israeli dissident Michal Warschawski’s concept of ‘border running’ through which members of antagonistic communities create locations ‘on the border’ where they can share ideas and engage in joint projects in such a way that the dividing lines between these communities are changed and eroded (Michal Warschawski, On the Border, Pluto Press, 2005). Yet the point is that like the aesthetics of uncertainty, ‘border running’ should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means towards the creation of new political projects which will involve taking sides in agonistic, though hopefully not violent political struggles. Doing this will involve a movement out of uncertainty into a state closer, though not quite the same as certainty.

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