About eighteen months ago, together with a group of residents of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, we embarked on a project which we named “The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum”. More than indicating an expected result this name constituted a starting point, a direction. As the project progressed and as acquaintance with the neighborhood residents deepened, it became clearer, resonated thoughts, and accumulated meanings. This text, written from the perspective of time, is about the three components of the name – the adjective, the place, and the concept.
Why “complete” in The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum? What has “complete” to do with “museum”? People tend to omit it, as if it were a superfluous addition, a redundant curlicue. This is not the same as the omission of “Cohen” from “Jessy Cohen”, which is widespread in the neighborhood and among its acquaintances, an omission of familiarity. This is a different kind of omission, stemming from discomfort, perhaps even embarrassment. “Complete”. An ostentatious, somewhat modernistic word, boasting something it does not possess, and never will.
But “Complete” is important precisely because it stands out and because it is superfluous, precisely because it is not essential, not realistic. It is utopist; it wants the impossible, including to change the world. Even before addressing the meaning that it perhaps carries, in the stage of morphology and sound, its deviation from the direct and familiar format of “place name + museum” is like a small obstacle at the entrance. Not an obstruction or prevention, but an invitation to linger and think. How is The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum different from just The Jessy Cohen Museum?
The “complete” does not clarify anything concerning the disciplines to which the Museum is dedicated – art, ethnography, history; it does not attest to the Museum’s content, its form, or its contributors, but rather to its intentions.
The “complete” seeks to state, of course, that it is not complete and never will be, and consequently it is constantly coming into being, constantly evolving. And yet, the “complete” can also be interpreted positively. It signifies a genuine aspiration that seeks to contain Jessy Cohen in its entirety, in all its aspects; it seeks to be the neighborhood’s map, its mirror, its cabinet of mementos, its laboratory. It is a potential, it is a horizon, but consequently, also inherent in it is the premise that it will always remain unattainable, impermanent, and changing, as long as there is movement.
It may be stated that Jessy Cohen is not a place, but a site. In Migrant Sites: America, Place, and Diaspora Literatures, Dalia Kandiyoti talks about site-making apparatuses that transform the geographic place into a site with a fixed identity that is usually formed through an external view.
The Museum seeks to restore Jessy Cohen into a place, or perhaps multiple sites; in other words, multiple meanings stemming from the place itself and not inflicted upon it from the outside, and breaking out of the restrictiveness the name imposes on it. It seems that this name, which has become synonymous with poverty, crime, and neglect, can be likened to the proverbial fishbone stuck in the throat, which the neighborhood refuses to swallow.
Perhaps it is the subconscious rebelling, or a physical rejection response, an involuntary instinct, but ever since the neighborhood’s earliest days the issue of its name has remained unresolved, denied, and repressed.
In its first years the neighborhood is mentioned in official documents as “South Holon”, and “Max and Jessy Cohen” is one of the housing projects comprising it, like “Shikun HaAcademaim” (Academics Housing) or “Batey California” (California Homes). Later, it is not known exactly when, perhaps after a memorial stone for the two philanthropists was laid (and this too in a kind of Freudian slip, outside the neighborhood’s boundaries), the neighborhood started to be called Jessy Cohen, relinquishing the “Max”. Evidently, there was no consensus in the municipality itself either concerning the neighborhood’s name, since at one stage street name signs were installed bearing the name “Max and Jersy Cohen, a name adopted by many of the residents, some of whom are convinced to this day that this is the name of the neighborhood in which they live. What did rapidly become fixed is the neighborhood’s reputation, so much so that in 1979 the municipality held a competition to choose a new name for the neighborhood, in terms of “a change of name – a change of luck”, a kind of extrapolation of the custom of a sick person changing his name. The Sages said: “Four things rend apart a man’s decree, and they are: charity, crying out, changing of one’s name, and changing of one’s actions”, and Maimonides interpreted: “Change of name: As if to say ‘I am another person, I am not the person who behaved that way’”.
But the results of the competition were not implemented, the reason for which is not mentioned in documents from the period.
When seeking to examine the geographic place, too, similar resistance is encountered, beneath the surface and unconscious, from residents and authorities alike. Resistance that appears, for instance, in the form of vagueness – in multiple versions concerning the neighborhood’s boundaries – and even demolition – the climax of which was the Ayalon Highway, built in the early 1990s and which split the neighborhood, severing part of it. The complete disregard toward the archeological site in the heart of the neighborhood, five strata of an ancient settlement discovered in excavations carried out in 1960, can be seen as yet another form of denial. The site was covered, and not only does nothing remain of it, but there is no indication or marker of the site, and its existence is not mentioned in any way or form.
In pre-state maps the area of the neighborhood, nothing but sand dunes, actually belongs to the Jaffa District. When the area was attached to Holon’s area of jurisdiction it constituted the city’s western and southern borders. Beyond it there were dunes, oxidation ponds, and further out the sea in the west, and a cemetery in the south.
The edge of the world, the edge of the city, being on the margins, the verge between desert and settlement, between wilderness and society – the city’s better-tended neighborhoods – seems like a seminal experience in the formation and evolution of the place that is Jessy Cohen. But the margins are not only margins; they are included in the larger territory of a land that is a desired and longed-for destination. A place that is lack of choice within the Land of Choice (or the Chosen Land), the undesirable place within the yearned-for place, is a paradox that feeds the experience of the place and the constant tension between conflicting feelings of belonging and rejection.
But what is it that is actually denied? What is rejected by the living, pulsating, changing body that is Jessy Cohen? It is the multiple facets, multiple layers, and complexity that are the lot of every place, and even more so of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood. Perpetuated in this resistance is the consciousness of randomness, of no choice, of arbitrariness inherent in the non-chosen place. The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum does not aspire to define Jessy Cohen, to reconcile the contradictions, or fix one perspective or another. It seeks to bring to the surface the various phenomena and complex relationships, and place them in a single space that enables their observation and the disparities between them, and to formulate an attitude toward them.
Just as The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum is not complete, it is not exactly a museum either. The museum in The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum is not an institution but an artistic action. Or, in other words, it is fictive, an impostor. The imposture is symbolic and has two principal meanings. Encapsulated in it is the contention, the belief, and the demand to establish a real neighborhood museum. But first and foremost, the name “museum” serves as possessing authority and power, which are conveyed by means of the Museum’s actions to the residents engaged in establishing it and creating its contents. At the same time, the Museum is not only a symbolic concept with which The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum adorns itself, but also a set of work practices that it places at its disposal: collecting, investigating, archiving, selecting, curating, exhibiting, a form of action that mandates analysis, critique, and taking a stand. These practices are employed over time in an ongoing process of accumulation, building, and dismantling. A process that does not strive to attain a specific objective, but one that frequently assumes and sheds forms, and enables constant reexamination that each time anew reveals new connections, weaves possible narrative threads, and unravels others. Like Georges Didi–Huberman’s understanding of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas as an act of renewed perspective and the creation of new meanings by rearranging and placing different images, documents, and texts next to each other, a reorganization of elements in a space (physical and conceptual), and creating relationships between them.
In the case of The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum, this process of ongoing evolution is fed not only by the wealth of the findings, items, memories, and documents, but also by means of a constant dialogue with the present-day neighborhood, and creating different interactions with it and with its residents, past and present.
The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum is a museum of a place, not of a particular discipline. It strives to create a representation of the place in its broadest meaning, of its various aspects, and the multiple perspectives it contains. It strives to create a new, multidimensional picture of the place, not by means of a cosmetic change like a change of name, but by means of an ongoing process of confronting the internal view with the external.
The constant movement of view between the external anchor and the personal, experiential one, is a necessary pendulum movement that on the one hand enables involvement in the deep sense of the word – being included in the object of view – with the fragility and vulnerability inherent in this situation, and on the other to maintain a critical distance that is committed to additional, perhaps contradictory, voices and to readings that do not necessarily chime with the personal experience.