Facing Klone: The Address of a Voice in Tel-Aviv's Street Art

klone2Their presence on the streets of Tel-Aviv has become so clear in the last two years: what is the kind of voice that enunciates itself in Klone’s images? How do Klone’s human-alien-predators speak to us, as they unexpectedly surface on buildings, houses, walls, street corners, power boxes, doors, entryways, doorframes and windowsills, as they flicker – appearing and disappearing – on Marmorek, Yehuda Halevi, Shenkin, Lillienblum and Herzl streets; on Rothchild Boulevard, or in the Florentin and the Old Central Bus Station districts; in the Dizzengof Square area, the old Tel-Aviv Theater on Pinsker Street, in Bezalel Market and northward along Ben Yahuda Street? How should we listen to the voice of these images?

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But let us begin with a few preliminary remarks on the concept of “voice,” and in particular the distinction between two senses in which the term appears in two different contexts of discussion. First there is a common discourse in which the term “voice” is treated as the enabling condition for self-representation in the public sphere, the condition enabling any demand for recognition as well as the realization of one’s rights. As in the elections, having a voice means participating in the global count. If you lack a voice, you’re simply not counted: your presence cannot be publicly registered. And this is in fact how we ordinarily use the word: letting your voice be heard means expressing a stance – the very fact of having a stance – thus transforming the social field, making a difference. In this sense, one’s voice is a token of one’s membership in public discourse and, as such, the voice is typically discussed when focusing on classes, groups or individuals whose voice is suppressed, who are silenced by the social-political system. This context of discussion also serves as the characteristic background for writing on graffiti and Street Art.

The act of graffiti is typically understood in terms of a struggle to make one’s voice heard in the public sphere, a confrontation with the predominant social deafness that bars the street artist from recognizing his or her voice as part of that sphere. The act of graffiti – e.g., bombing – is an attack on those “walls of silence” that signify the exclusion of “bombers” from legitimate spheres of expression. In this respect, the act of signing one’s name, graffiti’s ur-form, the signature appearing on a wall, a telephone booth or on a subway car, is not a mode of self-expression, but is, first and foremost, an act of self-assertion, self-positioning and thus a marking – indeed, often an aggressive, antagonistic demarcation – of one’s territory within public space.

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Graffiti is often conceived of as vandalism or as an act of violence, precisely because it stems from that basic feeing of silencing and voiceless-ness. Urban graffiti was born of feelings of deep alienation toward the prevailing symbolical order and, moreover, of a simultaneous refusal to adhere to that alienation. Graffiti grows out of an unremitting demand to be reflected in the public “mirror”. And, as graffiti creators demand to see their reflection in that mirror, they take action which necessarily calls for a destabilization, a disruption, of the given order of things: the order of private and public property, the order of the Law – which embodies the exclusion of the “bomber’s” voice. As such, graffiti may be understood as speaking in a twofold manner: on the one hand, its voice addresses the inner circle of graffiti artists – a community that can decipher and genuinely appreciate the value, novelty and achievement of new graffiti; on the other hand, it provocatively addresses an indifferent public sphere where the voice has little or no chance of reverberating. In this sense, what the graffiti voice “says” is “like it or not, here I am!”, or “here I am, for your eyes are compelled to acknowledge me”.

klone5But the discussion of the meaning of the voice is developed in yet another philosophical context, where the dialectics of self-assertion and public recognition is less central. Here, the phenomenon of voice opens itself up to a different kind of questioning, one that focuses rather on a dimension of the voice that in principle evades the public and is thus never tied to any given order of discourse. I believe that this somewhat unique philosophical context ultimately offers a more fruitful perspective for thinking about Klone’s melancholic predators, whose enigmatic appearance is not only tied to the fact that they have arrived in town from some unknown “outside”, but also to the fact that what they demand from their viewer remains completely unclear.

In contemporary philosophy – from Jacques Derrida to Jean-Luc Nancy, from Luce Irigaray to Julia Kristeva and from Stanley Cavell to Adriana Cavarero – there is an interesting discussion of the human voice as that which embodies the singularity and irreplaceability of the speaking subject. In this context, the voice of the other person is not the statement, the stance or position through which an individual appears in public, but a dimension of the individual that cannot be articulated and is fundamentally incommunicable within the meaningfulness of a public language. Voice is not only a vehicle for conveying possible “content” but is the expression of the uniqueness – the idiosyncrasy, the otherness – of the person speaking to us; and as such the other’s voice is not what we can comprehend in his or her speech but that which ultimately remains alien and external to our logic.

In the Blue Octavo Notebooks, Franz Kafka makes use of a voice-metaphor which might prove relevant for elaborating this point. He writes:

Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.

Kafka uses this small parable to toy with a traditional analogy between the structure of the human subject and the structure of a room, an enclosed inner space in which our mental life plays itself out. Kafka is ironical about this analogy, and yet he nevertheless uses the image of the room to point to a unique dimension of the subject, a dimension which in my view calls for proper attention in spite of – or perhaps just because – the structure of the modern subject has already been dismantled. What Kafka points to is that the singularity of the Other always evades the seemingly coherent organizing structure of the Self. This singularity, which makes each and every one of us what we are, echoes as the other person walks past us – and is embodied, according to Kafka, in a very particular kind of voice: not a clear, distinguishable one; not one with an internal logic subjected to the other’s intentions, aims and stances; but rather the voice, the sound, of a coincidental screech – a rattling – of a mirror that is poorly-fastened to the wall.

According to Kafka, we can – and perhaps we even should – make an effort and listen to that idiosyncratic screech which echoes the unattainable singularity of the Other. And here, precisely, a whole set of interesting questions open up, questions pertaining to the nature of that content-less sound, as well as to our ability – and obligation – to listen. What would listening mean – listening to this unintelligible but unique voice, which is neither pleasant nor even clear to us?

The unofficial, idiosyncratic voice of the Other may be approached and reflected on in a variety of philosophical modes. For our purposes, I think that the work of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas offers a uniquely interesting perspective. Levinas is known as a philosopher who develops an ethics whose starting point is a new critical understanding of the concept of the Other. Levinasian ethics stem from a criticism of the manner in which the Western philosophical tradition privileges the Self, the ego, the I, as its point of departure. Instead of criticizing the banal patterns by which the self has become a dominant institution, Western philosophy, according to Levinas, has internalized selfhood as its guiding principle. And in so doing, in the tradition ultimately reproduces a kind of obtuseness or deafness toward the disturbing presence of a radical otherness which is always already there, between us: the otherness of the Other person.

Someone, a person, addresses us; she takes the liberty of speaking to us, but she may just as well be silent or just about to become silent in our presence, and we … we are used to all that… we know how to look back, how to listen and respond. We know where to place what we see and understand, what we are told; and yet, we still nevertheless often remain blind and deaf to a fundamental dimension of the other, one which always eludes the frames of reference created by our seeing and listening.: what typically eludes us is the very presence of the person who approaches us – the “who” so different from the “what” – the singular, irreplaceable presence of an “outside,” that turns toward us, a call whose origin remains inaccessible.

In his writings, Levinas searches for ways of speaking about the manner in which such a radical “outside” -the transcendent or the Infinite – may nevertheless echo in our daily lives. For Levinas, it is clear that the Other cannot be conceptualized by the ego and yet, he insists that that the Other’s transcendence is nevertheless completely integral to our lives. Hence, if one only knows how to look – or, as in Kafka, if one knows how to listen – then one allows for the revelation of this radical otherness within the very heart of the here-and-now: that which cannot be formulated in words makes itself heard and the invisible shows itself as such. But where does this all happen? If we are to ask Levinas, this would be at what is simultaneously nearest and farthest away from us: this very moment, at dinner, when a pizza deliveryman knocks at the door. Or, before that, a man on the other side of the sidewalk, then at the grocer’s, a woman buying ice cream for her daughter, when we greet another person and when we don’t. The gleam of transcendence appears in “the face of the Other”.

Levinas’s choice of the human face as an image for that which embodies the transgression of the known public sphere is anything but self-evident, and has indeed attracted no little criticism. Why is it the face, for Levinas, that which reveals the radical alterity of the Other? In what way can the Other’s face be said to evade the sphere of the Ego? In what way, according to Levinas, does “the gleam of the Infinite” show itself in the human face? Isn’t the human face precisely that which necessarily appears to the consciousness of a specific viewer and hence is always already a given content whose features are derived from a common familiar lexicon (i.e., large head, small forehead, hooked nose, sexy face, spiritual face, cunning face, happy face, depressed face, dark of glistening eyes, Marilyn Monroe or Tony Sporano, Obama, Netanyahu or Hassan Nassrallah)? Does the face not always already belong to a matrix of given public meanings?

To begin with, the answer is a resounding “yes”; the face of the Other always appears within a social-cultural-political context, within certain conventions and taxonomic systems that are often tied to domination, the abuse of power, discrimination and injustice. In Israeli society, for example, we immediately recognize “the face of a Palestinian”, “the face of a settler”, “the face of a migrant worker”, “the face of a mizrahi man”, or “the face of a Russian woman”. We are indeed so used to meeting “tagged” faces that we don’t really know how to look at a face without the use of given social-cultural-political categories. This, however, is precisely where Levinas’s critique begins. Can we break away from the habitual patterns of our seeing and discover the freedom and the responsibility we have vis-à-vis our own gaze? What kind of responsibility do we have in facing the other? Can we refuse to participate in the manner in which our gaze so typically reifies the other’s face? What would such a refusal mean? These are precisely the Levinasian questions: can we encounter the face of the Other without subjecting it to the rule of “the same”?

According to Levinas, the possibility of encountering the alterity or otherness of the Other is neither a given nor an easy option, but one that demands a radical transformation of central aspects of the self (of the institution of selfhood) and, in particular, a transformation in our characteristic ways of looking and seeing, of listening and hearing. In this context, the first thing Levinas underscores is the need to resist the idea that the Other’s face (or voice) is “something” (an object, an image) which is simply “there” in front of us, waiting for our proper attention. Levinas differs here from Kafka, for whom the Other’s voice is located in its own identity and which is situated within the confines of that subjective room. Despite its evasiveness, the nucleus of Kafka’s voice is all there – beyond the subject’s image (the mirror) – reverberating a very specific quality (its screech), which gives itself up to the sense of sound “when everything round about is quiet”. The voice itself is given us only if we manage to create good conditions for listening. This is not the case with Levinas. For him, the face is exactly that which never gives itself up, and which will never be given to us as itself. The face’s “presence”, Levinas writes “consists in coming toward us, in making an entry…the epiphany of the face is a visitation”. What exactly does that mean?

In my book Emmanuel Levinas: Ethics as an Optics I suggest thinking about Levinas’ face as a sort of event or a happening. This can in fact be derived from the word’s declination – face, to face, facing (in Hebrew panim – pana – pniya). The face’s unique presence does not derive, therefore, from its visual characteristic, but rather from its act of facing. The essence of the face lies, according to Levinas, in the very event of facing or addressing. Addressing whom? An “I”, an ego, a self. The face is a one-directional vector whose presence in the space between you and I opens up the possibility of sense in the first place. It is the event which endows the space between us with meaningfulness, a meaning based on the primordial presence of the other person, which is there, facing me, before his having said or done anything specific.

Hence, when we sit now at two ends of the table, I cannot say where your face is located since the word “location” does not apply here at all. Your face, in the Levinasian sense, can never belong to the frame of a camera; it is not something which has its “place” in the room. And that is because the face is never simply “there”, say around the nose or in the front of a head resting against the wall. For Levinas, the human face should not be understood as an object that occupies, in its mass, a given space. Instead, the face should be seen as a unique kind of motion toward the self, an entry into the self’s living space, a visitation, sometimes a trespassing, of the sphere of selfhood. And in this sense, the face is not what appears to me when I bother to look, but rather an appellation already directed at me, befalling me so to speak, calling out to me and making me responsible for that which stands before me, regardless of what is said (or what I understand of that which has been said) between us. “The face”, writes Levinas, “imposes itself on me without me being able to be deaf to its call or to forget it; that is, without me being able to stop holding myself responsible for its distress”. The Other’s face is a form of speaking, a “wordless” call which is nonetheless absolutely binding:

[f]or here no one can be substituted for me; in calling upon me […] it obliges me as someone irreplaceable and unique, someone chosen. Inasmuch as it calls upon my responsibility, it forbids me any replacement. Irreplaceable in responsibility, I cannot, without defaulting, […] escape the face of a neighbor; here I am pledged to the other without being able to take back my pledge.

In a corollary manner, the voice of the Other, reverberating in the singular, idiosyncratic way that concerns us here, should not simply be understood as a subjective quality that might easily escape us, but rather as the epiphany of an alterity that disrupts our daily routines governed by the sphere of the ego. The voice of the other reveals the sense in which the “I” is primarily a relational structure of response. In other words, the very form of otherness – embodied in his or her voice – is the ethical imperative; that is, the reverberation of the other’s voice is inseparable from the revelation of the fact that one’s responsibility toward the Other is internal to one’s subjectivity. And in it is in this intersection that, according to Levinas, “the resonance of silence – Gelaut der Stille – certainly sounds.”

How does all this relate to street art and to Klone’s images?
First, Klone’s faces are never simply “there”; their presence is not a “given”. They appear, rather, showing themselves in the city; cropping up unexpectedly around a corner, transforming the familiarity of the ordinary without asking anyone for permission, furthermore never negotiating their presence with the interests of viewers. Klone’s creatures face you. They turn to you much before you have decided how to look at them or whether you wish to see them at all (this holds true for street art in general). The Klones typically face you more clearly if you actually walk the streets of the city, but in any case they always show themselves – and sometimes hide themselves – in a manner that unfolds within the horizons of city life, traffic, construction-work, renovations, demonstrations, good or bad weather and of course via one’s ways of moving around the city, always dependent on the route you have chosen on a given day, on your specific rhythm and on the contingent paths chosen by the urban gaze.

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Furthermore, being in-the-street, Klone’s faces usually appear with sunrise and often turn to shadows at night. It all depends on whether or not there is a street light nearby or perhaps an old neon shining from a neighbor’s terrace. They thus appear just as they disappear: suddenly, with no prior notice: after the rain; erased by an unhappy shop owner or when the Municipality sends its workers to paint a certain wall anew, preparing it for some election propaganda.klone7

Klone’s human animals always appear as part of a dynamic situation. They often interact with preexisting images or graffiti which, in themselves, have the tendency to appear in multiplicity, in accumulation: like electromagnetic clouds or, alternatively, the animals painted layer upon layer in prehistoric cave painting, such as the ones, for example, in Chauvet.

klone8klone9For Georges Bataille, the fact that in cave painting one commonly finds areas that are so crowded with images – and images upon images – serves as evidence of a general interpretation of the significance of these primordial works. For him, the multiplicity and superimposition of images shows well that for early cave painters, the essence of painting was not so much the created image as much as the very act of painting (image as object versus image as mark of act/event). This intuition might be fruitful when we turn to think of street art, but we won’t develop it here. For our purposes, suffice it to say that as if aware of the fate of those images around them, Klone’s animals also seem to know that they are bound to disappear one day. Is their melancholy tied perhaps to this awareness of their own fragility and finitude? Do they look at us with eyes that see their end coming? Or perhaps it is our end that they see?

Let’s turn to consider the images themselves, and first let us notice that whereas these human animals are indeed always already part of the urban “texture,” their appearance lacks any clear context; these faces are neither integral to the city itself nor clearly belong there. They come from “outside”; they are outsiders who have arrived here from a place that lies beyond the horizons of a specific time and place. These figures cannot be classified easily precisely because their self-presentation involves a set of irresolvable tensions such as the tension between animal and human, between predator and prey, good and evil, ordinary and extraterrestrial, contemporary and mythological. Who are these large-fanged predators? And what is this sadness – and sometimes tenderness – that twinkles in their eyes? Do Klone’s animals bear a family resemblance to Fenrir, the monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, or rather to Spielberg’s ET?

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In conversation, Klone speaks of predators and the relationship between their existence in nature and human urban existence. He values the kind of precision that predators have. Unlike the manner in which predators limit themselves to satisfying their basic needs, city people can never be satiated. What is a predator doing in the city in which it so clearly doesn’t belong? The Klone figure is a stranger. Its strangeness is its very form of appearance. And yet, despite the enigmatic character of its identity, the Klone appears with clarity: the clarity of simply being-here, participating – albeit in an unfamiliar manner – in the city’s life.

Yet at the same time Klone’s faces are not simply there as objects or self-enclosed images; they are present, rather, in the very event of “turning toward,” us, in the manner they face and address us. Klone’s figures look at us. They might appear full bodied or only showing their face. They can be encountered while in motion or when in total repose. But they always look at us (there’s a glimmer in their eyes). What does the Klone figure see? It sees the street, the road, cars, passersby, people opening and closing shops, the passing day and of course it sees us as we look back and reciprocate, i.e., in relation to the Klone our gaze is always reciprocal, a gaze in response to that which has already turned to us, that which has come toward us. The encounter with Klone’s figures is one that always develops on the grounds of the primordial manner in which they face us, speak or call on us. But, where does this voice come from? What does it want? How should we listen and respond to such a call, whose language is unknown and yet whose affect is so undeniably clear?

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Living in the city, we are familiar with a whole lexicon of appellations, modes of being addressed by others. Someone turns to us; he asks how to get to this street or the other, or whether we’ve seen the dog that was till recently tied to that fence. Another person asks us for money. Sometimes we respond to the other’s request and at other times we turn our back to it; but as long as the context and content of these situations is clear, we know how to position ourselves vis-à-vis the address of the other. “I need money for the bus, please give me a few shekels”: we know what that means and how to act accordingly. We can either give the other person the money they’re asking for or refuse, say something as an answer or ignore them, but whatever we do the context in which he or she has turned to us – the issue at stake – seems clear.

With Klone’s figures, however, the situation is completely different. The Klone figure turns to us but it remains unclear what it wants of us. The predator-alien-human speaks in a voice which we can’t hear, or rather a voice which cannot be heard, as long as we expect it to ask us for something specific – “something” that would be intelligible in our own language. The Klone’s voice has its own range of reverberation, one that is foreign to our ear’s habits and expectations. Is the Klone speaking in silence or is it speaking in tongues? This voice has nothing to do with the divine; it is completely finite and fully belongs to the ordinary – just like ourselves; but just like us, it too is at the same time a stranger to the ordinary. We can say hello, linger a bit, look from here or from there, but we shall never be able to bridge the distance between us, because this predator neither wants to devour nor to accept any charity from us. It faces us in a manner that neither hides nor reveals anything. It’s address is very simple – so simple, in fact, that it transcends the specificity of any particular request. But doesn’t this completely change the order of things? Is the predator’s address a request at all – or is it, perhaps, a kind of giving?

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