Posted by: simonsteachingblog | September 7, 2009

When the Berlin Wall meets the Gaza Barrier

This text started out as a reply to a comment on my post ‘Creative Destruction on the Gaza Border’, but it got too long and so I decided to turn it into my next post.

Peter Kennard, photomontage used as the cover of his book 'Images for the End of the Century'

Peter Kennard, photomontage used as the cover of his book 'Images for the End of the Century'

Peter Kennard’s cover for his book Images for the End of the Century is a great photomontage. As the commentator observes, it does seem to represent ‘reconciliation smashing the idol’ of the Berlin Wall, as opposed to ‘smashing the idol in the vain hope of reconciliation’ in the case of the destruction of the Gaza barrier. However, we should think about the difference between these examples not just at the level of symbolism, but also in terms of the relationship between this symbolism and the political realities to which they relate. The situation in Germany in 1989 was markedly different to the current situation in Israel/Palestine. Germany had been divided by external powers after the defeat of Nazism in 1945; a division that generated separate political systems in the East and the West of the country. When the external political and military power that maintained the DDR in East Germany collapsed, then the reunification of Germany became possible. In Israel/Palestine there is no external power that has kept people divided and in conflict with each other. Instead there is an internal power, the Israeli state itself. Indeed, it is because of the dominance of the Israeli state over the territory that was Mandate Palestine that we should be careful about defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one between ‘warring tribes’ as if the Israelis and Palestinians were somehow equals in this conflict. It is crucial to understanding in this context that Israel is a sovereign nation-state with the most powerful military in the Middle East, whereas the Palestinians have no state, no sovereignty, and no army to speak of, just armed militias that have none of the technological sophistication of the Israeli army. So unequal is this conflict that some commentators refuse to call it a conflict at all (see for example Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives, 2007).

Under such conditions Palestinians have little option, but to either engage in acts of pointless and murderous terrorism, or to generate vain but hopeful gestures towards a better future. Hamas’ blowing up of the Gaza barrier is not quite this kind of gesture, but my suggestion would be that it is a positive form of iconoclasm that points towards ways of contesting the imprisonment of the Palestinians within physical enclosures and stereotypical images as well as potentially contributing to the contestation of the imprisonment of the Israelis (albeit under vastly better conditions) in the role of the occupier. But what blowing up of the Gaza barrier points towards is perhaps not the violence of the iconoclastic gesture at all. What was most symbolically valuable about this action was not the act of destruction itself, but the movement of people that it temporarily allowed.

What is being discussed here is perhaps closer to what W. J. T. Mitchell defines as ‘critical idolatry’ that, in contrast to violent iconoclasm, does not involve the destruction of idols, but their ‘sounding out’. As Mitchell observes: ‘The power of idols over the human mind resides in their silence, their spectacular impassiveness, their dumb insistence on repeating the same message (as in the baleful cliché of “terrorism”), and their capacity for absorbing human desire and violence and projecting it back to us as a demand for human sacrifice.’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 26-27) Sounding out the idols makes them, in Mitchell’s words, ‘an echo chamber for human thought.’ Through such practices political idols and the demands they make upon people can be contested and reconfigured. The idols that are central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – for example, the linked Israeli idols perceived victimhood and security, or the Palestinian idols of the armed struggle and martyrdom – need to be sounded out and made to resonate with new ideas and signs. Such signs may well become totems for new forms of kinship.

Where might such acts of sounding out the idols be undertaken? Perhaps the best place will be on the border. Meaning that the critical idolater needs to adopt the role of what the Israeli dissident Michel Warschawski has called the ‘border runner’ (see Michel Warschawski, On the Border, Pluto Press, 2005). The ‘border runner’ refuses to accept that there are no other locations to occupy other than those on either side of the border. Not just the literal political border, but the borders defined by linguistic, national, and ethnic difference. Border running therefore is a symbol of hope for a future when the border might no longer exist and an act that might constitute a model for this future. Occupying a position on the border is itself a gesture and an action that involves reconfiguring the idols of exclusive ethnic-national identity that are so fundamental to the violence of the conflict.

Having made these observations, it might be added that the reconciliation between East and West Germany was enabled through the effective triumph of the West German state. Indeed, this process might even be seen, not so much as a process of reconciliation as a process through which the West German social and political system dominated and replaced that of East Germany. In relation to this, what Kennard’s image might represent is not so much the reconciliation of two separate political systems to create the current unified German state, as much as it represents an ideal of ordinary people meeting as equals over the ruin of a wall that was itself part of a deep compact between Soviet style communism and capitalism that ruled out political possibilities beyond those defined by these opposed political systems. In this sense what Kennard’s montage represents might also have been the product of a ‘vain hope’ for a not yet experienced political order of equality; a political order that would constitute a kind of reconciliation – what leftists used to call ‘the rendezvous of victory’. I am thinking here of a rendezvous as a meeting place, as in the two hands coming together through the broken wall. This rendezvous did not happen, or is yet to happen. In this sense, Kennard’s image might be closer to the destruction of the Gaza barrier, or other potential acts of critical idolatry and border running in Israel/Palestine than one might think.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | September 1, 2009

Artur Zmijewski’s ‘Democracies’

The Polish artist Artur Zmijewski has collected twenty short documentary films under the heading ‘Democracies’. As one watches these films over two hours and twenty-six minutes, this heading initially makes sense. All the films deal with forms of public gathering, indicating some shared degree of collective will. Yet the relationship between the films and the notion of democracy seems problematic given further thought. Not all of the films are of obviously political actions, nor do all occur within contexts, or with objectives that can be considered democratic in any obvious sense.

Nine of the films were made in Poland.  Three of these are of overtly political demonstrations in Warsaw. One is a feminist demonstration (the 10th Annual Women’s Day Manifestation) at which speakers demand an end to violence against women, proper women’s health care, and the limitation of clerical influence over the government around issues of sexual equality. Zmijewski also filmed the small rightwing counter-demonstration to this event at which calls for greater abortion rights for women are equated with Nazism and the Holocaust. A second demonstration is organised by the Solidarity Union that demands better living conditions for Polish workers and a third is a demonstration of Catholics against current Polish legalisation on abortion.

Solidarity Demonstration, Warsaw. Artur Zmijewski ‘Democracies’

Solidarity Demonstration, Warsaw. Artur Zmijewski ‘Democracies’

The other films made in Poland represent the public funeral of the Polish Health Minister (Zbigniew Religa), a procession of ‘The Way of the Cross’ through Warsaw, the reading of a letter from the Polish episcopacy on the matter of artificial insemination in a Warsaw church, two re-enactments of battles during the Warsaw uprising against the German occupation in 1944, and the parade and picnic of the ‘Feast of the Polish Army’. None of these events appear to relate to political practice in an overt way, though the reading of the episcopacy letter borders on this in that it involves an intervention on the part of the church into the field of biopolitics. Sexual reproduction and control over women’s bodies are significant issues of political debate within Poland, with leftists and women’s organisations presenting a strongly pro-choice agenda, the church and the right calling for a ban on abortion, and ‘moderates’ supporting the current law established in 1993, that constitutes a compromise position allowing abortion, but only when pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, when the foetus displays gross abnormalities, or when the life of the woman is under threat. In this context both the reading of the episcopacy letter and even the procession of ‘The Way of the Cross’ might be seen to constitute forms of political action within the public sphere because they involve the assertion of the authority of the church within this space. Yet even if one is able to suggest that the procession of the ‘Way of the Cross’ relates to broader public political debates, it is difficult to extend such a proposition to the films of Zbigniew Religa’s funeral, the Warsaw Uprising re-enactments, and the ‘Feast of the Polish Army’. This point also applies to two films made in Germany of football supporters in Berlin during and after a European Championship match between Germany and Turkey, and of the memorial ceremony for the 16 victims of Tim Kretschmer’s shooting spree at the Albertville School in Winnenden in March this year.

What this means is that some of the films are obviously political in content, while others are not. Yet even those films that address a distinctly political subject are not obviously about democratic acts and concerns. This is particularly the case when it comes to understandings of democracy based upon notions of equality. For example, there is Jacques Ranciére’s conception of democracy as a condition that only emerges when the status quo (or in Ranciére’s terms, the ‘police order’) is contested through collective action premised upon the principle of equality. In relation to this understanding of democracy, Zmijewski’s films of demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank appear to represent something appropriately democratic. The Palestinian people of the West Bank village of Bil’in do not live in a democracy of even a liberal kind. Rather they are ruled through military law by a state that denies them the suffrage and citizenship that it gives to Israeli citizens living within the Green Line and to Jewish settlers within the West Bank itself. Nevertheless, the coming together of Jewish Israeli activists and Palestinians in Bil’in to protest against the West Bank Barrier filmed by Zmijewski constitutes a moment in which the ethnocentric logic of the occupation is contested and a partial sense of equality is created. However this kind of democracy is certainly not present in the demonstrations filmed in Poland that relate to the Catholic Church. The people in these demonstrations occupy public space, but they are doing this not on the basis of equality, or with the purpose of contesting the legitimacy of the politically given, but rather on the basis of their subjection to the edicts of the Polish episcopacy. Even the demonstration in Bil’in is structured by an inequality between Jewish Israeli activists and the Palestinian villagers with whom they declare solidarity. Indeed, one practical role of the former is to provide a degree of protection to Palestinians from the sovereign violence of the Israeli state. As the Israeli artist David Reeb, a regular at the Friday demonstrations in Bil’in, who also appears at the end of Zmijewski’s film of the demonstration in the village, once observed in conversation: ‘People [meaning Jewish Israelis] don’t like it when the army shoots Jews.’

Palestinian Women's Demonstration against the attack on Gaza, Jerusalem. Artur Zmijewski ‘Democracies’

Nakba Day, Ramallah. Artur Zmijewski ‘Democracies’

These points suggest that the theme of the democratic is hard to pin down in the films that constitute ‘Democracies’. So where might we focus our attention to understand what Zmijewski’s films present if the democratic principle is not altogether intelligible within them as a whole? I would suggest focussing upon two things emphasised by the films: first, the continuing significance of nationalism within contemporary politics, and second, the almost theatrical nature of many public gatherings and demonstrations.  Zmijewski shows us German football supporters, who chant ‘Germany, Germany’ and ‘This is who we are’, as if they are under the assumption that they are able to tap into some essence of German-ness, instead of actually generating this condition through these very declarations. In other films we are presented with rightwing Israelis demonstrating in Tel Aviv in support of the impending IDF operation in Gaza denouncing leftists demonstrating against the attack as people who do not really belong to the Israeli nation and Loyalists attending a march marking the 399th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in Belfast, telling Zmijewski himself to ‘fuck off back to Poland’. Here we have examples of the exclusiveness fundamental to the national imaginary: some people are taken to belong, others are not; belonging necessitates a uniformity of thought and commitment to the nation, whereas departure from this uniformity of commitment indicates a betrayal of the nation. These declarations of nationhood, despite the differences between the positions from which they are enunciated – Palestinians, unlike Israelis, Poles, and Germans, have no state that can cohere their nation in terms of a sovereign territory – all involve certain kinds of ritualised performance. They require uniforms, symbols, slogans, and modes of comportment. This also extends to those films that focus on leftwing politics, suggesting that even the most seemingly radical forms of political activism can involve things that are taken as given. The anarchists filmed smashing and burning buildings at an anti-NATO demonstration in Strasbourg are dressed the way anarchists are meant to dress and are doing what anarchists are meant to do, or at least what they think they should do to effect political change. This does not mean that such actions are just theatrical spectacle and as such pointless. Yet, there is a value to ‘Democracies’ if it can get us to think about how radical politics is itself often something that has a routine and is a matter of repeating, or re-enacting, actions that have occurred in the past. Perhaps this is the point of Zmijewski’s inclusion of the films of the re-enactments of the Warsaw Uprising?

This leads me onto the matter of the apparently contradictory relationship between the verisimilitude and seeming transparency of the individual documentary films and the resistance to easy interpretation that their combination in the ‘Democracies’ project presents to the viewer. Each film is constructed in a straightforward way and there seems to be little artifice to Zmijewski’s approach to documenting the events. Yet this sense of accessibility is lost once the viewer is forced to puzzle over how the separate films relate to each other. Zmijewski has commented that ‘[t]here is no art in these movies.’ This maybe the case, but there is art in their presentation together. And it is their presentation together that gives the overall project the characteristic of ambiguity that has been valued in much contemporary ‘critical’ art.

There are moments in the collection of films when one thinks one has been shown something that points to the overall logic of the project. For example, the final film on the ‘Feast of the Polish Army’ ends with a singer performing a song, one line of which declares: ‘The time has come, the highest time, to conquer hatred that eats our hearts.’ Is this bizarre performance the key to the meaning of ‘Democracies’? One might suggest that it is, given the apparent focus of the films on the forms of hatred and exclusion wrapped up with nationalism. Yet one is still left wondering. Moreover, it is Zmijewski’s avoidance of explicit partisanship and propagandising that seems to be the most worthwhile characteristic of his project. This strategy leads to a viewing experience that teeters between a sense that ‘Democracies’ is a bit inconsequential because of its relative unintelligibility and a condition of thoughtfulness about contemporary politics enabled by this very resistance to straightforward interpretation.

‘Democracies’ will be shown at the Cornerhouse in Manchester on Friday 27th November 2009.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 26, 2009

Ruins as Political Images

In a recently published text related to their ‘Decolonising Architecture’ project, Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Eyal Weizman commented on the decision taken by the Israeli government to destroy the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip that were evacuated in 2005, observing that this destruction ‘was meant, amongst other reasons, to deny the function of this architecture as a political image.’ The ‘political image’ in question was that of Palestinians living in former Jewish homes, or transforming synagogues into mosques. As they suggest, such images would have reversed the process of occupation and colonisation through which Israel was created in 1948, when Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for new Jewish residents.

Demolishing three thousand formerly Jewish homes in Gaza may well have blocked the generation of dangerous images showing Zionism being undone, however, another result of this action was the creation of a landscape of ruins that itself enabled the production of other images potentially corrosive to the Zionist ideal. When translated into pictures these ruins carried connotations that are the opposite of conceptions of the productive creation of Israel as a modern society in an essentially empty land. Here was destruction instead of construction, despoilment instead of beautification, desolation instead of hope. These pictures also had the potential to generate other connotations related to the destruction of Palestinian villages and urban neighbourhoods in 1948 and after. Thus the ruins in Gaza opened up possibilities of metaphoric linkage to other ruins made in the creation of Israel over Palestine.

It was not only the news media that pictured the ruins of the Gaza settlements, but also artists. For example, the Israeli art photographer Gaston Zvi Ickowicz travelled to the former settlements in 2006 to photograph their remains. One photograph he produced is particular striking. It depicts a pile of rubble and other detritus in a sandy area topped by an Israeli flag. The latter seems to have been planted in an attempt to assert Israeli sovereignty over land ceded to Palestinians, yet it also sets up a pictorial dialogue between the rubble pile and the flag. Instead of topping a public building, army base, or a site of triumphal victory, the flag tops a scene of devastation wrought upon one of the creations of Israel. The symbolic implication is that Israel in the present, or, perhaps more significantly, in the future, is a space of destruction and ruination.

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Untitled (episodes from a settlement series), 2006

Gaston Zvi Ickowicz, Untitled (episodes from a settlement series), 2006

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel 1963

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel 1963

The pile in this photograph is resonant in an additional way in that it can be read in relation to Niza Yanay’s suggestion that national icons often involve vertical pyramidal motifs (Niza Yanay, ‘Violence Unseen: Activating National Icons’, Cultural Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 134-158): for example, the Iwo Jima flag raising photograph, or in Israel, Micha Peri’s photograph of the raising of the Israeli flag at Elat in 1949. One might also consider a family-snap taken in 1963 at the Yad Mordechai kibbutz that I picked up in a Tel Aviv flea market. This photograph shows a group of Israelis posed in four ascending rows in front of the statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader that was built in front of the remains of a water tower damaged during the successful repulsion of an Egyptian assault in 1948. The combination of the people, the statue, and the water tower establishes a pyramidal configuration that suggests the aspiratory values associated with the nation and signifies heroic resistance and defence against acts of military violence aimed at Jews. Zvi Ickowicz’s photograph seems to mock such motifs, presenting a negative image of destruction in place of the optimistic and proud image of the national community in microcosm. It is in this sense that the ruination of the settlements in Gaza paved the way for the creation of images that present alternatives to the icons that populate the Israeli national imaginary.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 20, 2009

Creative Destruction on the Gaza Border


Breach in the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, January 2008

Breach in the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, January 2008

In January 2008 Hamas militants blew up a section of an 8 meter high metal barrier built by the Israeli army in 2002 along the so-called ‘Philadelphia Corridor’ that constitutes the border zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In reaction to the breaching of the barrier, which had been under Egyptian control since the Israelis withdrew from the border in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt to buy unavailable goods.

At a practical level the destruction of the barrier temporarily lifted the economic siege of Gaza enforced by the Israeli state since Hamas took control of the territory in 2006. Yet this action can also be understood as an example of the kind of ‘creative destruction’ that W. J. T. Mitchell has identified as a consequence of particular kinds of iconoclasm. This destruction is creative because it destroys and creates at the same time, annihilating iconic forms such as sculptures and buildings, while at the same time generating new images of these very acts of violence. Thus the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001 destroyed these symbols of American capitalism and also resulted in the proliferation of myriad images of the buildings on fire and collapsing that became the focus of celebration, mourning, and calls for revenge. This is why Mitchell has suggested a symmetry between iconoclasm and idolatry. The iconoclast attacks the idols of the other, but at the same time produces ‘”secondary images” that are, in their way, forms of idolatry just as potent as the primary idols they seek to displace.’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images, The University of Chicago Press, 2005: 21)

By blowing up the barrier between Gaza and Egypt, Hamas sought to destroy an Israeli built structure that was the physical and symbolic manifestation of the enclosure of the Palestinians. A structure that was the subject of Palestinian hatred, but also, one might suggest, the subject of Israeli idolatry for an exclusive nationalist ideology and for the sacred cow of security. The resulting pictures of Gazans climbing over the crumpled metal of the barrier in a brief moment of liberty contested the dominant image of the Palestinians as a people doomed to imprisonment constructed in the media in recent decades. As such, the destroyed barrier functioned as the opposite of the West Bank Wall that has become a symbol of enclosure and division in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2002.

It is in relation to these observations that I would suggest that the blowing up of the barrier is probably one of the most imaginative political actions undertaken by Hamas. Instead of sticking to the tired dogma of armed struggle, that has produced little other than a veneer of legitimacy for the violent actions of the Israeli state, Hamas briefly opted to engage in a kind of creative activism that generated an symbol of freedom. In contrast to the familiar iconography of militias, martyrs, suicide attacks, and rockets, the breach in this physical barrier opened up possibilities for changes in how Palestinian resistance to the occupation might be imagined. 

The imaginative potentialities that this action appears to have released was suggested by the statement subsequently made by a senior Hamas official when he threatened that if Israel did not lift the economic blockade, 500,000 Gazans would march on the Erez checkpoint at the northern end of the Gaza Strip. Unlike military attacks upon Israel, this would be a non-violent action that also holds the potential to be a far more effective form of resistance. If rocket attacks on Israeli cities do little but bolster Israeli militarism, non-violent activism on a mass scale at least holds the hope of delegitimising Israeli state policies both amongst international observers and amongst Israelis who currently support state militarism in reaction to a perceived Palestinian threat.

Although not undertaken, the proposition to march hundreds of thousands of civilians to Erez takes us back to the suggestion made in the 1970s by the Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad that the Palestine Liberation Organization should emulate the Civil Rights movement in the US by organizing mass demonstrations of unarmed refugees, who would simply march on the borders of the occupied territories holding banners declaring ‘We want to go home’ (Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, Pluto Press, 2000: XXIX, 29, 33). Such a turn to non-violence would take away the icon of the Palestinian terrorist that the Israeli state despises, but also desperately needs to maintain the conditions for their veneration of the idol of ‘security’. Consequently political non-violence is itself a kind of iconoclasm.

Posted by: simonsteachingblog | August 18, 2009

Visual Archiving Exercise


Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

In late June and early July 2009 the students on the MA in Visual Culture at Manchester Metropolitan University engaged in what was termed a ‘Visual Archiving Exercise’, the aim of which was to develop a research process involving the collection and organisation of images around a particular theme, resulting in some form of display. The idea was that the display would be ‘archival’ in the way that art practices, such as Joachim Schmid’s ‘Archiv‘ and Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas‘, have been described as resulting from an archival impulse. Not an archive in the conventional sense of an institutional repository of documents organised in such a way that they can be easily retrieved and consulted, but rather a display that is the result of a search for images in a vastly more disparate archival field defined by both images on-line images and in print. As such, the Visual Archiving Exercise was meant to be methodologically and formally a bit like the panels produced by Aby Warburg for his ‘Mnemosyne‘ project. A project that Warburg described as ‘art history without a text’. The intention of the exercise was to explore the possibilities for research through the use of visual images. This would involve research on visual images at the same time. It would also necessitate the use of words – as search terms for the collection of visual images and in terms of the group discussion of what was being done with the images. It was also decided that some relevant quotations would be included in the display. Yet the primary focus would be upon the images themselves.

The student group decided upon the theme of ‘power’ and then identified search terms through which they would search for visual images, mostly on-line. These terms included, for example, ‘sovereignty’, ‘discipline’, ‘surveillance’, ‘symbolism’, ‘military technology’, and so on. The group searched for images individually and then brought them together in a studio space within the Fine Art department recently vacated by undergraduate students. The images were then organised on the floor of this space. Through various Visual Archive Exercise sessions more images were added and others were discarded. In this way the nature of the theme was fine-tuned. However, the resulting display remained pretty wide-ranging in the types of image it entailed and the sub-elements of the theme of power that it addressed. What resulted was a kind of tabular mapping of forms and aspects of power and of the kinds of imagery that are conventionally related to, or instrumental within power relations. Also present within this ‘map’ were images that related to the ruination and belittlement of power (for example, images related to Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias), and to acts of resistance and iconoclasm. Important for the latter was W. J. T. Mitchell’s idea of iconoclasm as ‘creative destruction’ through which the spectacular annihilation of a icon of power creates a new icon that itself functions as an idol (see W. J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images, The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Images were included that referred to the synoptic ‘God’s eye view’ of social administrators and political leaders – for example, the image of Albert Speer looking down at a model of the proposed Nazi reconstruction of Berlin as ‘Germania’. Such images were linked in group discussion to the position of the researcher as someone with the authority to select and organise images; an authority perhaps made manifest in the relationship between the horizontally arranged images and the vertical human researcher moving above, around and amongst them. This relationship was referenced in the display through the inclusion of a photograph of Andre Malraux working on his ‘Museum Without Walls’.

Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

After the images were arranged on the floor, they were further edited through their arrangement on a wall using needle work pins. A smaller number of images were used for this final display. The research process and final display enabled the group to think about how knowledge and social relationships are in part embodied through images, how images are linked together within the cultural field, and how new links might be imaginatively forged through a research process of this type. Thus the exercise involved a form of creative iconography and a form of visual culture in itself.      

Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

Visual Archive Exercise, Summer 2009

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