Wall against Wall against Wall: Art and Cultural Boycott
I have taken on a rather horrible task: to discuss the matter of the campaign to impose a cultural boycott on Israel from a personal perspective of an artist and curator. In recent days I feel sorry for making that silly decision. What a headache. In fact, I considered writing a very short article consisting of only one sentence: “leave me alone, I wanna go away, take a rest from this dusty old screwed up Middle East, get some attention (well, alright, from those five people who actually show up to see performance art), recharge my libido and satisfy my curiosity, and let me assure you that I am a moral person and an advocate of human rights etc. etc.” But apparently that would not be enough, nor would it be the absolute truth: lately I am a bit tired of art and people, the libido is not doing brilliantly, and frankly, I’m not so sure that deep inside I’m a completely moral person as I would like to believe. Still, since I made the commitment, I will nevertheless try to wear a mask of analytic seriousness for a moment.
In the past few years I mainly travel to meet my own ignorance. The more I travel, the more ignorant I become. Cities and countries I have read about on the internet break down into countless states of consciousness. Conversations with people reveal to me the great contradictions behind concepts and presumptions. Meanwhile and simultaneously, the body functions in a framework of artistic convention – performance art. Deriving from an encounter (with another person, a place, a space), performance art always contains an element of potential breach, the ability to be immediate and move with unanticipated temporal conditions, or lose control altogether. The body transmits frequencies, not always clear even to itself, and these frequencies incorporate the accumulated psychophysical froth as it suddenly meets an unknown space. And then I come back home, to Tel Aviv. In rare moments of openness, I also discover the ignorance of that which is right under my nose. An unfamiliar neighbor I accidentally run into shows me that even my own neighborhood, where I have been staying for ten years, is a lost Atlantis.
Tel Aviv tries to pretend it is a normal city. War always looms in the background, occasionally invading in the form of terrorist bombings. This country is a winding crack in a particularly dense historical vision. Anyone who seeks a concise lesson in an impossible assembly of clichés – on issues of nationality, religion, colonialism, utopia, conquests, holocausts, grotesque identities born of catastrophe, wars of civilizations and sub-civilizations and sub-sub-civilizations – is welcome to come here. The bottom line is that people are mostly struggling with themselves. In short, welcome to the Ghost of the West; to the drain hole of everything that refuses to become repressed.
As we know, that delirious seam likes to occasionally combust and display spectacles of mass killings that may have not reached their pinnacle yet. The effect on the artist, living inside this existence and taking part in all flavors of the contemporary global culture is two-fold: first there is the tendency to covertly or explicitly encourage standard and easily-digestible political maxims that are either “pro-Israeli” or “pro-Palestinian”, as if this was a soccer match, in order to assimilate into the western, and particularly West European cultural arena; and secondly there is the threat of a cultural boycott – the application of which being thus far limited, though there is evidence of its gradual strengthening in recent years in indirect and camouflaged ways. On rare occasions, curators in conversation with me choose to boldly and frankly share the complexities of this issue (for example, Shannon Cochrane, curator of FADO, Performance Art Centre in Toronto, following the conversation with whom I am writing these words).
The famous cliché goes that “everything is political”. And that is largely true. But firstly and foremost, anything political is also emotional, psychological, and a reflection of consciousness trying to delineate separate identities by projecting onto some kind of an imagined “other”. There are those who still insist on conserving a position of relative sanity, and who aim to establish an artistic strategy that is not only influenced by the political but that mainly strives to radically expose the apparatus of consciousness behind the political – the same mechanism that always seeks to construct a separate and “just” identity in the name of some agenda. The resulting art does not really need, if it doesn’t wish, to commit to those readymade political and moral ideas at the price of over-simplification – especially in a place where reality is incredibly intricate. It illuminates an existence within a flawed and relative world, and perhaps, in rare moments, can mark a window to a dimension where those fortified boundaries of consciousness are blurred, if only in the slightest. At its best, this kind of art soberly testifies to its own limitations, out of sincerity and questioning.
And yet, reality: Israel-Palestine has a continuous reality of occupation and oppression of Palestinians, war with external Islamic factors, severe internal polarization and trampling capitalism. There is a silent majority busy with its daily survival, extremists and fear-ridden people of every type, alongside experimental cultural phenomena that are varied and surprising, and that reflect progressive post-national civil values. These contradictions often co-exist as a confusing whirlpool on the level of the individual. It is always interesting to discover, both here in Israel and anywhere else, people who deconstruct their own identities and who find out they are not complete saints nor complete sinners; people who know they are not absolute individuals, and that they are a part – whether they like it or not – of a system of social belonging, propaganda and counter-propaganda; that they live in a world of identities and murderous self-interests of every kind. Sometimes art is able to observe all this and generate a degree of distance, though small, where it can then meet all sorts of very imperfect people from many places in the world.
There are those who like their art attached to clear cut moral values. It’s their right. I try to focus on one rule only: dealing with representation. It is there that we are allowed to reflect each and every destructive and unresolved contradiction. At the end of the day, this is only a game of self-awareness. If this game works correctly and deeply, it does not lead to nihilism but to a state where people are sharing their limitations with other people. Ultimately, this process of exposure can evoke a new sensitivity. Inside this relative reality, it seems there is much to learn particularly from artists from conflict-ridden countries. The list of killings, occupations, exploitations, human rights violations and industries of intimidation under various justifications, is long and includes dozens of states. I wouldn’t want to boycott American and British artists following the mass killings in Iraq; nor would I want to boycott Russian artists following the killing of civilians in Chechnya and Georgia; nor Chinese artists following the occupation of Tibet; I would also gladly meet an Iranian artist, even if they support the destruction of the imperialistic Zionists – they would apparently have just reasons to think like that from their point of view. I would happily meet every artist from near and far corners of the Earth that I may have read a column or two about, without sifting through their moral values based on my own previous assumptions; they need not produce readymade anti-war clichés in advance (even if I myself have a personal preference to mingle with all kinds of lefties, some radical activists and some complete pacifists. There too, of course, paradoxical inner contradictions may arise – the demand for “freedom” that creates another wall and countless enemies).
Seemingly, most of the campaign’s supporters claim they only intend to boycott artists supported by Israeli public institutions, and not independent artists. Here too, when rummaging through the work of this or that person, one may find a deep ocean of a very impure reality. Like any citizen, artists everywhere support mechanisms of order and power with their tax money ; they feed at one point or another, directly or otherwise, on public funds and the local machine of economy – through systems of education, cultural production and distribution. Many cultural phenomena that carry a “subversive” value ultimately feed off, and perhaps not incidentally, the existing power structures – within which are the dialectics of both centre and fringe, conflicting interests, conservation of oppressive order and its undermining. Academic and cultural work with the apparent agenda of dismantling power structures is supported by public funds on one level or another. Even more radical fringe activity grows and branches out of that same food chain. Many paradoxes that are hard to swallow exist within this endless arena of brawl. There are some who think that to relinquish the public resource arena, in the name of some illusion of purity, is actually an act of desperate political nihilism. In short, the attempt to quantify and simplify these many complicated phenomena is a bottomless pit; it demands the willingness to sink in the depths of deep contradictions that the eye cannot easily see. Fans of purity could come down with intense paranoia. Sure, the debate on boundaries on this matter is necessary and healthy, only in many cases it may be best to expose it for its proximity to being shallow, arrogant and hypocritical; to perpetuating existing power structures in the name of the rhetoric of purity.
Of course one cannot be naive and deny the fact that everything is tied into a system of power relations. One might boycott Israeli artists and not those who come from international superpowers. Absurdly enough, this position debilitates those Israeli factors that still attempt, in the midst of a sea of fear and despair, to believe in a reality of an equal and secular civil society and in the possibility of ending the occupation; those same factors that conduct daily and fragile networks of civil collaborations and who express resistance to a forceful and deaf policy. The civil achievements made here despite everything cannot be taken for granted when blood still trickles down the streets, and there is far more delicate and sensitive work to be done in the face of the domineering extremes. Can the threat of cultural boycott drastically change the opinions of those who, thinking critically and compassionately, understand that the causes and reasons for war in history and in the human mind are plural and complex? Moreover, do these threats only intensify a state of deep-seated cynicism and nihilism? Will populist comparisons to Apartheid in South Africa help people understand the specifically profound circumstances of the nightmare they are living in, even as fierce critics of the state they are citizens of? There are many types of misery, oppression and tragic circumstance in the world, and here too God is in the small and inconvenient details. Those who think that boycott will contribute to a quick fix of the conflict are warmly invited to dip in this boiling concoction, the one that leaves little room for illusions of speedy salvation. Conversely, those who consider boycott part of a total ban on the existence of the state of Israel do not need this discussion. For them, we could end here, in mutual understanding. And indeed, there are those who think that people born in unjust locales must eradicate their very core and take personal liability, for example, for the outcomes of a bleeding Jewish-Christian-Muslim history and of oppressive colonialism. From these undoers of history, at most, we can politely ask for passports to kingdoms of pure justice.
Trying to simplify the situation in Israel is akin to trying to exorcise the demons of a many factored global conflict, and fetishistically focusing it on one point; it is a purist attempt at denying those, of all people, with the capacity to reflect the suffocating odors of this volcanic pit as a product of a historic nightmare with singularly entangled roots. Needless to say, many people have strong feelings for this story, because it reflects something deep that they connect with. In the cultural-artistic context, this uncomfortable discourse needs to remain open to interpretation. Humans do not choose to be born in certain places. Artists may at least try and give testimony of those places with their tools of expression. In the field of art, this is, most importantly, about the freedom to give conflicting testimonies.
Potentially, art can enter twilight areas that are difficult to address directly. Through this exploration, the deep symbiosis of narratives is discovered, the inseparable reciprocities. The barrel of blood is underneath all. Untwining the roots of catastrophe can cross many identities on the way to the futile attempt at locating some “Original Sin”. The “other” is always a nightmarish projection of a process of denial of self. Any attempt to remotely create a projection of ideas of sin and sacredness onto groups, to create a flat abstraction of “Israelis”, “Palestinians”, or any other group, creates more war. In reality, identities are dynamic things that include very many sub-groups and contradictions; they constantly fight and assimilate into each other in a kind of a destructive erotic impulse that creates new pairings. That is one of the greatest jokes on this planet, and it looks like we’re going to keep laughing until it explodes.
The Israeli-Palestinian situation is only a small test case for a much larger question to do with the cross-cultural encounter between identities in crisis in a wide cultural context. There is no specific characteristic here that relates specifically to performance art, other than one essential fact: performance art is a form that represents, above all else, a live and immediate communication, a breach, a process, becoming and being in conditions of unpredictable encounters. The mere structural principle of international performance art events assumes a political disposition, and is sometimes much more important than any political content in the work itself. One clear and obvious factor can be identified within this process: the more funding a body of art receives, the more pressure it faces to represent a “worthy” discourse. In that context, some emphasize the affinity between performance art events and cultural activism that deals with solidifying temporary international communities, usually at minimum financial means or any direct political dependencies. The conception of performance art as a low-means field that relies on the body alone, with no commercial value or serious public impact, usually allows in many cases for greater liberty. In this, the pressure on artists to produce a fashionable and defined discourse is clearly lifted. Ultimately, this is a recurring pattern in many activities of contemporary global culture networks, and we need not categorically isolate the performance art field from a wider context; it is already woven through with the elaborate activities of individuals in numerous systems – in the arts, academics, social-cultural activism and more.
When all is said and done, action that involves threats of boycott only forces people to find alternative ways, out of the understanding that the existing power structures had already been corrupt by positioning a wall against existing walls. Above all else, any cultural-political act with a spark of vitality deals not only with criticism but with establishing a new human reality; in a passing instant of willingness to forget all the hopeless and exhausting accountings of guilt, blood and body counts. So perhaps we – the imperfect people, infested with contradictions – may see something new, in the flicker of a moment, beyond the smokescreen.
Yaron David (b. 1970, Israel) works in video and performance art. He is also a curator and is active in the performance art scene in Tel Aviv, working with and organizing events with PAP (Performance Art Platform) including a monthly performance event (2004-2007), as well as the ZAZ International Performance Art Festival (2007, 2008). He is a writer and freelance editor, working with museums and cultural institutions. David’s work has been presented at international festivals in Israel, Crotia, UK, Finland, Istanbul, Poland, France and at the National Review of Live Art in Scotland, among other events and exhibitions. This will be David’s first appearance in North America.
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