The Politics of Aesthetics Between Bil'in and Tel Aviv

Enacting art means displacing the borders of art, just as enacting politics means displacing the borders of what is recognized as the sphere of the political (Jacques Rancière 2005)

An enormous black viper made of cloth, rusty L-shaped pipes, a locked iron cage, a huge metal scale, styrofoam coffins and mirrors with inscriptions in red paint. Who decides whether these objects have an artistic value, or whether they are functional, practical tools within a certain political context? On what grounds can the decision be made? It is the place where the objects are located, the way in which they are being used, the eye of the beholder, the authority of their creator, or maybe some internal aspect that resides in the objects themselves?

manif_0015
The residents of Bil’in village fight against the imposition of the separation wall on their land for the last six years. As part of their struggle, the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall filed numerous appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court, the village hosts yearly international conferences on the subject of popular resistance, and weekly demonstrations that include residents as well as Israeli and international supporters. Although the last few months have shown an escalation in the army’s use of excessive force to disperse the demonstrators, the Bil’in demonstrations retain their unique character. Each weekly demonstration has a specific theme and most demonstrations include the use of sculptural objects. During one demonstration, for example, demonstrators marched from the village houses towards the trajectory of the wall, carrying above their heads a huge black viper made of cloth. Some protestors carried smaller versions of the viper around their necks. In another demonstration demonstrators locked themselves inside an iron cage that was fastened firmly to the ground.

manif_0058
The same viper and the same cage were later presented in the exhibition “Fence Art”, which opened in March 2006 at the Minshar For Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. The snake was placed in a half-circle on the floor close to the entrance door, greeting visitors as they entered the gallery, and the cage was placed at the back of the gallery space. L-shaped segments of rusty pipes, that were previously used to tether demonstrators to the ground, hung now in a row on the wall, arranged in different angles and lit by spotlights.pastedGraphic

Clearly, the way in which the sculpture-objects were experienced in the gallery and in the fields of Bil’in was completely different: here a white cube exposition, and there a politically-bound action. Nevertheless, I argue that the changed context does not necessarily lead to a change in essence. In both the demonstrations and the exhibition, the sculpture-objects led their viewers into a process of challenging accepted hierarchies and questioning common viewpoints.

Just after the opening of the exhibition, Haaretz art critic Dana Gilerman interviewed Oded Yedaya, the curator of the exhibition and an active participant in the Bil’in demonstrations, and Mohammad Khatib, a member of the Bil’in Pupular Committee Against the Wall and the maker of most of the sculptures. Gilerman raises important questions with regards to the power plays involved in moving the sculpture-objects from the political to the artistic field. In the interview Yedaya asserted that the sculpture-objects were first and foremost artworks, and that Khatib is an artist in this respect. Khatib himself stressed the fact that he is not an artist and that he would have preferred the sculpture-objects to appear in close connection with the explanatory material found in the next room, in a sort of a documentary exhibition. The Curator and the creator also differed with regard to their respective reasons for mounting the exhibition. Khatib’s main objective was to get further exposure for Bil’in in the Israeli media, while Yedaya also wanted to create an intellectual discussion that would explore the possibilities of the terms “drafted art” and “drafted gallery”.
In her article Gilerman argues against Yedaya’s choice to frame the sculptures as art, “as if the art world found a new toy to adorn itself with”. But on the other hand, after interviewing Khatib, Gilerman concludes that “the way in which he discusses the creative process… and his entire way of thinking strengthens the assumption that he is a true artist”, thus agreeing in principle with Yedaya’s approach. The attempt to define the different actors and objects takes up most of Gilerman’s article, and points to the complexity of figuring out whose voice is it anyway, and who has the power or the legitimacy to decide how to frame objects, statements and struggles.

Gilerman’s text was taken up by Yisrael Palda in his article “art in the service of politics” (published in Omedia website) to argue against the “dubious freedom” of postmodern curatorship that “allows the curator to define art, to say who is an artist even without presenting proper proof – and to present the facts in a way that adheres with his subjective political option as if these are objective values.” Palda ignores Gilerman’s doubt and reads “Fence Art” as a pure curatorial confiscation of non-art products. However, based on Palda’s clear-cut denunciation, as well as on Gilerman’s half-hearted criticism, I would like to argue otherwise. It seems to me that the sculpture-objects created a rupture in the accepted scheme of “politics” and “art” in the gallery just as much as they destabilized the roles of demonstrators and soldiers in the field. In what follows I will interpret both “performances” of the sculpture-objects through Jacques Rancière’s theory of aesthetics and politics to suggest that the focus on curatorial appropriation leads us away from a much more interesting and relevant discussion regarding the political effects of aesthetic practice, with regards to “Fence Art” in particular and to art exhibitions in general.

lock on gallery

Bil’in a-la-Rancière: Redistibuting Visibilities
The use of the sculptures-objects in the demonstrations was quite varied. In one demonstration, demonstrators held styrofoam coffins in their hands to symbolize the consequences that the wall has for their lives, and in another they carried huge scales to denote justice. A more theatrical demonstration was headed by a fake scaffold from which a dozen people were hanging, all covered in white cloth. In other cases, flesh, iron and earth interacted even more intimately, when the sculpture-objects fastened protestors to their place so that they could not be moved easily. Examples include demonstrators attached to the ground by the metal foundations of a model of the separation wall, tied to olive trees with metal chains, or fastened to the road with the help of “lock-ons”.

These cases are exemplary of many other demonstrations where the sculpture-objects had a clear message, operating as three-dimensional banners or disturbing the construction work. In addition, these demonstrations involved the active participation of the soldiers whose task was to safeguard the construction of the wall. The latter found themselves involved in bizarre situations, as they took the mock-fence apart, broke the metal cage open, argued with absurdly dressed-up demonstrators or cut the chains loose from the trees. This marks Bilin’s distinction from customary protest actions.
In the interview with Gilerman, Khatib emphasizes the sculpture-objects function within the demonstrations. He contends that the sculpture-objects undermine constituents of violence and repetitiveness that could minimize public interest. Mass demonstrations are common and consequently their messages are exhausted and worn-out, and so adding entertainment to the equation seems to be the key to media success. According to Khatib, the demonstrations’ creative aspect encourages residents and attracts a large amount of supporters and media coverage, but when the case of Bil’in is examined from Rancière’s perspective the use of sculpture-objects can be understood not only as a motivational tool, or as a media attention grabber, but in terms of a shift in the politics of resistance.

Rancière defines “politics” as first and foremost a battle about perceptible or sensible material. Politics aims for the rearrangement of the existing “distribution of the sensible”, that is, the laws that prescribe what can be heard and seen in a specific political and social constellation. The essence of political struggle, according to Rancière, does not consist of gathering people into communities and fighting for the rights of these communities. Rather, it consists of exposing subjectivities that challenge existing social delineations and hierarchies. Rancière contrasts politics [la politique] with police [la police]. The police is “a form of intervention which prescribes what can be seen and what cannot be seen, what can be said and what cannot be said” (1998:28). Political action stands in opposition to this prescription of the police, and consists of “transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject” (2001:9). Politics, according to this definition, must break with the social order and create subjects and scenes of dialogue that did not exist beforehand.

But how does this take place, and how can the policed “distribution of the sensible” be redistributed? Spectacle could be one tool to compel acknowledgment: there is definitely something to see when there are costumes and sculptures around. However, for Rancière, spectacle is not enough. He discusses a deeper level of invisibility, where people and events are seen but are not acknowledged as meaningful subjects. Whenever a minority group achieves recognition for its rights, it also simultaneously reaffirms the existing power structure. The real rebellion lies in transgressing forms of accepted and expected social norms, positions and behaviors. Rancière summarizes this aspect in “Ten Theses on Politics” when he writes,

If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing them as the bearers of politicalness, by not understanding what they say, by not hearing that it is an utterance coming out of their mouths… And the politics of these categories has always consisted in making what was unseen visible… in demonstrating to be a feeling of shared “good” or “evil” what had appeared merely as an expression of pleasure or pain. (2001:10)

The Bil’in sculpture-objects are a political argument in this vein. They overturn a denial of recognition, and create, every week, a possible world where the colonizing parties are required to see the colonized in a light that they normally would have no reason to see. The widespread perception of Palestinians as an occupied people is that of fighters and/or victims. Palestinians appear in the (Israeli and Western) media regularly, either as a mass of young men who fill the streets in demonstrations and funerals, or as individual women, children or old men, helplessly telling stories of suffering and loss. The first type of image brings home to the viewer the potential of violence; the second bears witness to a victimhood that may bring about a sense of guilt or indifference. Palestinians are thus typically portrayed as either dangerously powerful or utterly powerless, but not as equals to those watching or controlling their actions.

The use of sculptural objects leads to a break with the victimized or violent conception of the Palestinian subject. It makes it difficult to perceive the inhabitants of Bil’in in terms of the conventional roles described above. Through the sculptures, the demonstrators define themselves as performers, join a contemporary international activist-art world, and demand that their political claims be heard from another angle. They disrupt the organizational principle of society and make themselves visible as social partners, through their appropriation of the tools of the bourgeois. The notion of the free artist is of course problematic, but the Bil’in demonstrators do not explore this fallacy; they exploit the myth of artistic freedom for their own purposes. “The particular feature of political dissensus”, Rancière tells us, “[consists of] the ones making visible the fact that they belong to a shared world the other does not see” (2001:10). The Bil’in inhabitants mould sculpture-objects in part as a means to reach a similar goal. Their use of art makes visible their creative equality to the ruling class, comprised in this case of Israeli citizens and soldiers, and thus changes the taken-for-granted power relations and opens up a space for situations of speech and dialogue that did not exist previously. Their appeal to the basic right of keeping their land is empowered by an aesthetic move that asserts their right to appeal on as equals in the first place.

manif_0233

Disagreements: Politics and Aesthetics
The relocation of the sculpture-objects from Bil’in to Tel-Aviv had a strong effect on the way they were defined, received and appreciated. In Bil’in the sculptures took a material part in demonstrations, and reframed a struggle between villagers and army as a theatrical happening. In Tel-Aviv the sculptures were displayed as abstract art, fitting to the space that hosted them. In Bil’in, sculptures were in constant movement, carried, worn or held by demonstrators. In Tel Aviv the objects stood still, detached from the people who built them and from the ground that was an integral part of their message. In Bil’in the sculptures were never meant to last, and some were dismantled and taken apart during the events. They were connected through time, as each object was the focus of a separate demonstration, and the collection grew in a steady weekly rhythm. In Tel-Aviv the sculptures from various demonstrations were put together, sharing the same space, and were presented in a way that did not invite onlookers to touch, not to mention destroy. All in all, the change in context seems to have changed almost every aspect of the viewer’s experience of the sculptural objects.

At first sight such a change, caused by Yedaya’s curatorial approach, seems indeed to support a reading of the exhibition as a clear-cut violent and silencing appropriation of a poignant political event. If someone does not want to be named artist and does not want his work to be seen as art, no one should be able to tag them as such against their will. However, it is important to note that Khatib’s rejection of the title “artist” was uttered in the context of the exhibition, not in the context of the demonstrations. As Khatib tells Gilerman: “The power and the beauty of the tools that I made manifest themselves in the demonstration itself. As far as I’m concerned, only there are they art”. This statement is significant, if we take into account that any political (or artistic) action is always specific and context-bound. By denying the sculpture-objects’ artistic aspect in the context of a gallery space, Khatib emphasized their – and his – political character. This move is the mirror image of Khatib’s relation to the sculptures in the politically-framed space of Bil’in, where he emphasizes their artistic aspect. What Khatib accentuated is the sculpture-objects’ adherence to two incompatible classifications, as artifacts (engaged and functional) and as art (disengaged and formal) at one and the same time, but never completely one or the other. In the vein of Rancière, precisely that pinpoints their political potential.

manif_0004

As we have seen, Rancière’s understanding of what constitutes politics is intrinsically aesthetic, because it is an “attempt of reconfiguring the partitions of time and space” to bring new forms into vision. The political is aesthetic because it creates a renewed perception of the relationships between the sayable, the see-able, and the doable in a social reality (Guénoun and Kavanagh 2000:17). However, Rancière has also a second, narrower definition of “aesthetics”, not as a dimension of the political experience, but as a way of refusing the pragmatic system that defines proper ways for making and judging art and differentiates between artworks according to forms, genres, mediums, and so forth, (2004: 91). The way in which the “distribution of the sensible” takes place within this representative regime of art is no different than the policing of the social order in general: each art form has its clear place, and there are no exceptions, no voids. The aesthetic regime, on the other hand, approaches art objects from a conceptual point of view and relates to their mode of being, extricated from their ordinary connections (2004:22). Thus, the aesthetic regime is political just as much as the political act is aesthetic: it is meant to invalidate ordinary hierarchies incorporated in everyday sensory experience, and to reorganize the accepted perception of reality.
In this light, it is possible to see how the presentation of the sculptures in an independent fashion, apart from the documentation of their original function, did not necessarily neutralize their dissident character. Conjured as an independent aesthetic event but at the same time reminiscent of the past life of its sculptures, Fence Art opens a distinct set of issues that would not have been relevant to the sculptures’ role in Bil’in, but that bear a certain continuity to it nevertheless. In the field, the Bil’in inhabitants transgressed the order of things by being something other than politically oppressed protestors. In the gallery, the Bil’in sculptures subvert this order by being something other than artworks. Thus, the exhibition does not limit the sculpture-objects to mere representations of an external, past process, but instead shifts their center of gravity in accordance with their new location.

The distribution of the sculpture-objects in the gallery space separately from the photographs that documented their function in Bil’in, spurred a discussion with regards to their significance, and brought their volatile identity to the fore. This curatorial move is not equivalent to Khatib’s confusion of the roles of art and politics, but it is also not opposed to it as much as it would seem at first sight. Fence Art was structured as another step in the fortune of the sculpture-objects, rather than as a post-mortem display. It allowed the sculptures to remain politically poignant because they continue to challenge the space that hosts them, albeit in a different way and for a different purpose.

Gilerman disagreed with Yedaya’s choice to appropriate the sculptures from the political sphere and to label them as art contrary to their maker’s will, but at the same time, she disagreed with Khatib when she found him to be a “true” artist. This contradiction cannot be solved – is not meant to be solved – but it can lead to question the axioms of the art discipline. The sculpture-objects are simultaneously already engaged and contemplative, and this is a contradiction only as long as we continue to separate aesthetics from politics. This is what makes them political, wherever they are, in the sense that Rancière gives this word. They do not only “presuppose the rupture of the ‘normal’ distribution of positions”, but also require “a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions ‘proper’ to such classifications.” They challenge the imposition of naturalized divisions and hierarchies between social identities, whether these relate to national subjectivities or to artistic categories.

To conclude, we have seen that the sculptural objects, created for the Bil’in demonstrations, contributed to the village’s steadfastness: the choice to employ art in the demonstrations brought about a rupture in the accepted “distribution of the sensible” in relation to the Palestinian popular struggle. In a different context the same objects disturbed another paradigm and ruptured customary classifications within the art world. In Rancière’s vein, these events are related inasmuch as the same objects brought about political occurrences that involved a reorganization of the senses. Reading the “Bil’in/Fence Art” case through Rancière, I propose that the attempt to separate politics from aesthetics is futile because the two notions are bound together from the outset. The attempt to fit the sculpture-objects into one category or another failed time and again, due to a resistance found in the objects themselves: these sculptures embody the fact that concepts, objects and meanings travel through time and space, and their significance never remains the same. Instead of delving into issues of propriety of voices and messages, or issues of exact meanings and definitions, it might be more interesting – and more constructive – to track the permutation of bodies whose potential lies in the constant challenge to clear delineations of our world.

_____________________________________________

  • Gilerman, Dana. 2006 (Hebrew). “The Art of Struggle”. Haaretz, March 28, sec. Galeria. (http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/pages/ShArtPE.jhtml?itemNo=699551&contrassID=2&subContrassID=7&sbSubContrassID=0 )
  • Guénoun, Solange and Kavanagh, James H. 2000. “Jacques Rancière: Literature, Politics, Aesthetics: Approaches to Democratic Disagreement”. SubStance 29 (2): 3-24.
  • Rancière, Jacques.1998. “The Cause of the Other”. Parallax 4 (2): 25-33.
  • Rancière, Jacques. 2001. “Ten Theses on Politics”. Theory & Event 5 (3).
  • Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Continuum.
  • Rancière, Jacques. 2005. Untitled statement. Panel discussion, at KLARTEXT! The Status of the Political in Contemporary Art and Culture, Berlin, Germany, January 16 (Available for download at http://klartext.uqbar-ev.de/services.html)
  • Yisrael Palda. 2006. “Art in the Service of Politics”. Omedia, March 31. (http://www.omedia.co.il/Show_Article.asp?DynamicContentID=1242&MenuID=668)