This text was written as an introduction to a one-day conference held at Manchester Metropolitan University in May 2008. The conference was entitled ‘Art, Visual Culture and the Israeli Occupation’ and accompanied the exhibition ‘Desert Generation’ that was currently on display in the Holden Gallery in the Faculty of Art and Design. The text discusses issues of visuality and visibility related to the Israeli occupation and the possible role of visual artists in relation to these issues. It is in terms of these broader concerns that I post the text on my blog.
Visual forms and practices of looking constitute a significant terrain upon which political struggles are played out. Conditions of seeing and not seeing, and of being seen and not being seen, are often key to political power-relationships. In relation to this enmeshment of seeing and politics, Nicolas Mirzoeff has recently called for the establishment of general ‘visual rights’ for people in the context of globalisation, primary amongst which are ‘the right to look at the obfuscated and concealed operations of globalisation’ and ‘the right to be seen by the common as a counter to the possibility of being disappeared by governments.’ (Nicholas Mirzoeff, ‘Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib’, Radical History Review, 95, Spring 2006, p. 40) These visual rights can be usefully adapted to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories. In this context, most Israelis cannot, or do not want to see the plight of the Palestinians, while the Palestinians have consistently struggled to bring their condition into the Israeli – and international – field of vision, through both violent and non-violent means.
For the Palestinians being seen is a crucial step toward the alleviation of the conditions of the occupation. For Israelis seeing is the first step in the development of what the Israeli media analyst Daniel Dor has called a ‘discourse of responsibility’ (Daniel Dor, The Suppression of Guilt: The Israeli Media and the Reoccupation of the West Bank, London and Ann Arbor MI: Pluto Press, 2005). A discourse essential for the empowerment of ordinary Israelis as people who can do something about the occupation sustained by their government. Here seeing in terms of optics is obviously and unavoidably linked to understanding. It is not without reason that the subject of optical vision supplies metaphors for conceptions of knowledge and enlightenment.
The problem with the occupation, at least when it comes to the field of vision, is that a great deal of effort on the Israeli side of the conflict has been invested in not seeing. This self-imposed blindness goes back to the early Zionist settlement of Palestine and the slogan: ‘A people without a land for a land without a people’. Summarised in this slogan is an active desire not to see the existent population of Palestine, a desire that has continued into the present through various technologies of blindness and psychological states of denial. This is what Ruchama Marton and Dalit Baum have called the ‘active nonseeing mechanism’ (Ruchama Marton and Dalit Baum, ‘Transparent Wall, Opaque Gates’, in Michael Sorkin, ed, Against the Wall, New York and London: The New Press, 2005, p. 214) through which Zionist settlers and then Israelis saw, or tried to see the landscape as empty. In the current period, this mechanism has been embodied in the opaque concrete sections of the West Bank Wall that literally block vision. As Marton and Baum observe, ‘the stated reason for the wall was defense’ – ‘defense from bullets’, but they add, also ‘defense from seeing’. Seeing must be defended against because seeing the misery of others behind the Wall threatens the exclusive collective identity that has been established on the basis of not seeing the other and recognising their common humanity.
Seeing must be blocked, or at least replaced with different kinds of vision, involving seeing the other in terms of stereotypical images. As Edward Said stated in 2001: ‘For years after 1948 the Palestinians are an absence, a desired and willed nonentity in Israeli discourse, on whom various images of absence have been heaped – the nomad, the terrorist, the fellah, the Arab, the fanatic, and so forth.’ (Edward Said, ‘Afterword: The consequences of 1948’, in Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Canbridge University Press, 2001, p. 214) For Israelis, caught within this struggle between seeing and not seeing, wilful seeing can become a crime, as was learnt by the Israeli Talia Fahima when she was jailed after she met with the Jenin-based Fatah militant Zakariye Zbeide in 2003. Although Israeli intelligence accused her of working with the militants, she suggests that her real crime was ‘seeing the Palestinians.’ (Conal Urqhart, ‘My Crime was seeing the Palestinians’, The Guardian, January 5 2007, p. 19)
Not only does the West Bank Wall block vision, it is also manifestly visible, and has become a sign for a number of things, not least of which is the apparent lack of political vision in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this sense the conflict is also a conflict over signs that are often visual and often involve different inflections of the same motif – thus the Wall is both ‘security’ and ‘threat’, the bombed out Israeli bus is both ‘vulnerability to terror’ and ‘legitimate resistance’, and so on. The possibility of new ‘ways of seeing’ perhaps depends upon and will necessarily involve the clearing away of this structure of oppositional imagery that is part and parcel of what the geographer Derek Gregory has termed the ‘architectures of enmity’ (Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan. Palestine. Iraq, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 17-29). Common ground can be created in a space cleared of some of this ideological clutter. I make this observation without the intention of downplaying the brute political conditions to which these ideological formations make an essential contribution. Nor do I assume that contesting such images is a simple or easy task. Rather my concern is to suggest that alternatives to these conditions can only come through finding ways of seeing without, or against the stereotype and the official view.
This one-day conference addresses some of these issues to do with visual culture and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while only touching on others. The relationships between the visual and this conflict are multiple, and will require further and sustained attention, not only by academics, but also by visual producers and activists as they try to work out how to represent the conditions of the conflict and find ways to contribute to its solution. In particular the conference focuses on that category of visual production called ‘art’ through presentations by Larry Abramson, Sliman Mansour, and Anna Dezeuze, as well as through the tour of the Desert Generation exhibition. However it should be stressed that the scope of the event is meant to be broad, touching on relationships between visual representation and the politics of space, as in Wendy Pullan’s presentation on divided Jerusalem, Anna Dezeuze’s discussion of specific artistic representations of and demarcations of space within Israel/Palestine, and in my own presentation on photography and the West Bank Wall.
The emphasis upon art is partly to do with the practicalities of organising an event to coincide with an artistic exhibition, but this focus is more than this. The idea of art, despite being increasing ensconced in an institutional structure that limits its potential for social effect, still sustains a kernel of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ premised on its construction during the modern period as a court of human appeal in opposition to the worlds of industry and commerce. The commitment to aesthetic effects and creativity central to artistic practice can be mobilised to create the conditions for new ideas and ways of looking that might alert people to cracks in, or ways out of the ‘architectures of enmity’ that structure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Alternative modes of visualisation and display, forms of creative activism, and calls for rights to expressive freedom that take us back to the core values of art, are all potential resources in the development of new visions which might be turned into different facts on the ground. As Susan Buck-Morss has observed:
‘We can do without objects as art, we can do without an artworld, we can do without ontologically designated artists. But we cannot do without aesthetic experience – affective, sensory cognition – that involves making critical judgments about not only cultural forms, but social forms of our being-in-the-world.’ (Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London and New York: Verso, 2003, p. 73)
Thus not only is it important to examine the scopic-regimes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, it is also crucial to think about the visual and aesthetic field as a space within which progressive forms of political activity might be developed. This is perhaps more significant than has so far been recognised, for as Wim Wenders has observed, ‘the most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.’ (Quoted in David Levis Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, New York: Aperture, 2002, p. 101)