The Emancipated Museum / Orly Shevi

Whenever I visit the Center for Digital Art in Holon, I think of philosopher Jacques Rancière’s essay “The Emancipated Spectator”. What is it that evokes that particular text, I wonder? After all, it addresses theater and considers the effectiveness and relevance of this ancient practice, which originated in the culture and politics of the classic Greek polis, to the public space of today. Is this connection a part of the many twists and turns of a poetic and associative flow of thoughts or is it a scholarly instinct that challenges existing thought? The center’s invitation to formulate a conceptual perspective in honor of its 20th anniversary provided me with an excellent opportunity to examine this question by diving once again into Rancière’s essay seeking answers.  And indeed, in it I found the potential of both understanding and explaining the uniqueness of the model developed at Holon’s Center for Digital Art in recent years.

Rancière’s essay will serve as my guide during my visit to the center. A guide that both exposes the emergence of the Holon center as a site of exceptional artistic activity and one which helps contextualize the center’s uniqueness, not only within the field of Israeli art but also as part of a global artistic practice which redefines the connections between art and the community and between the aesthetic and the political, in order to increase the political effectiveness of contemporary art and to bring the role of traditional institutions of art – museums – into sharper relief in a constantly changing public space.

While the essay, “The Emancipated Spectator”, deals with problems of aesthetic practices, it actually suggests a political problem. Rancière identifies that at the root of each artistic activity – be it a theater performance or music concert, reading literature or visiting an art museum – there lies a pronounced dichotomy between active artist and passive spectator. This structural relation in artistic practice took shape in Western society over thousands of years as a clear and effective means of conveying knowledge and ideas. Rancière refers to this structure as the pedagogical model. The problem with this model is the underlying inequality between the knowledgeable artist and the ignorant spectator and the unequivocal hierarchy of power relations inherent to that division. In today’s “society of the spectacle”, the application of this model has only intensified and no longer offers knowledge or a message but rather an increase in consumption. So according to Rancière, the central problem challenging art today is how to dissolve the pedagogical model which underpins the basic assumptions of an encounter with art, and establish a new model that will liberate the spectator to become an active participant with an independent consciousness.

To that end, Rancière suggests adopting a radical pedagogical model; “Intellectual emancipation”, as articulated by the 19th century philosopher Joseph Jacotot, is designed to overcome the failures of unequal power relations in the learning process. The basic foundational assumption of this model is that every person has the cognitive ability to create knowledge concerning the reality that they have encountered throughout the course of their life, through comparisons, trial and error, approval and confirmation. These abilities must be put to use every time a new subject is learned, like a hunter learning how to decipher signs and clues in the forest. Intellectual emancipation changes the relationship between teacher and student. With this approach, the aim of learning is not to reduce the gap in knowledge between the educated teacher and the ignorant student, but rather to turn learning into a collaborative undertaking which strives to establish knowledge through translating signs and symbols. This kind of learning requires a “third thing” (concept, book or any other object) that is foreign to both teacher and student and which will undergo a joint interrogation between the pair. The dialogue between them brings together two types of experience – knowledge and reception – which, through joint effort, will make it possible to formulate an understanding of the “third thing”. This form of encounter requires active participation by both parties and negates the aspiration to predetermined knowledge – for instance, the “correct” knowledge of the teacher – such that it offers release from the shackles of the famous construct that knowledge = power. Rancière proposes adopting Jacotot’s intellectual liberation model in artistic practice as well, recommending placing the “third thing” at its centre, as the focus of the encounter between the artist and the spectator and, in so doing, to overcome the unequal dichotomy present in today’s representative model of art.

So how is the emancipatory model implemented in Holon? Actually, I would like to argue that this model already exists at the Center for Digital Art. Take, for example “The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum” – an initiative by artists Effi and Amir in collaboration with residents of the neighborhood. This ongoing project began in 2016 and has produced four exhibitions to date, all of which address issues concerning the neighborhood itself: “The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum” (2016, artists: Effi and Amir), “Homeroom Class” (2018, artist: Gal Leshem), “We Are Natives” (2018, artist: Tamir Erlich) and “Mini Jessy Cohen” (2020, artist: Inbal Helzer). Discussion of the project in Rancière’s terms does not examine the exhibitions’ finished products but rather emphasizes the processes of investigation and work that lead up to the exhibitions as a joint effort by artists, staff at the center, neighborhood residents and spectators. The extensive documentation on the project’s blog and Facebook page as well as the “brainstorming map”, of particular interest in this context and which became a display in the first exhibition, reveal a journey of joint study based on Jacotot’s intellectual emancipation. This begs the question, what is the “third thing” that was the focus of inquiry for the project and the artistic actions that led to the exhibitions? The artists Effi and Amir answer this, saying: “the place in its broadest significance beyond the concrete-geographical”. Indeed, the visitor to these exhibitions is witness to the results of an extensive investigation of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood in Holon consisting in an examination of the basic categories of space and time – exploring the boundaries of the neighborhood and its residents’ mental map, and conceptualizing the history of the neighborhood on a timeline which includes archaeological finds as well as creating an archive which includes restoration of buildings and significant events that occurred in the neighborhood.

In light of this, the question arises as to whether it is the role of artists to conduct such an investigation? Traditionally, these forms of investigation belong to the fields of anthropology or history so why is it being performed by artists? Furthermore, is the Center for Digital Art which primarily serves as a municipal museum of contemporary art the right place to store the results of these investigations? As an art historian, I offer this answer: in recent years, contemporary art critics have identified two new trends in artistic practice based on relating to the local community (Community-Based Art). The first is called the “Anthropological Turn” in which the artist adopts anthropological field research practices to create art that deals with cultural identities of groups “other” than that of the hegemony. The second trend is called the “Historical Turn” which primarily engages with the past and in particular with the representation of voices and memories that have been repressed or excluded from the official historical narrative, in order to gain a revised understanding of community identity. These two trends have a distinctly critical and political nature and raise questions concerning representation and identity politics. Elements of these trends can be found in the Complete Jessy Cohen Museum project and read as part of this artistic endeavor which has become, as mentioned, central to contemporary art and in particular to municipally-sponsored museums.

Despite this, I refrain from drawing such comprehensive conclusions, and find it difficult to adopt them. This is because such conclusions are characterized by the same hierarchical failure that Rancière identified in the artistic act of the representational model: the presupposition that it is the artist who has the upper hand (by being well versed in practices of representation and modes of inquiry). This presupposition preserves the traditional dichotomy of the active, knowledgeable artist and the passive spectator. It is exactly this model which “intellectual emancipation” sought to eliminate.

Once again, I find myself examining the detailed documentation of the collaborations and learning and working processes of The Complete Jesse Cohen Museum, which do not allow me to accept an interpretation that leads to predetermined knowledge. And once again it raises the question, what is the “third thing” at the center of the investigation that makes The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum an artistic model of intellectual emancipation? I suggest that the “third thing” in this project is the art museum as a public institution. After all, The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum was created, conceptually, in an attempt to rethink the role of the Holon Center for Digital Art as an art museum, in light of its move to the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, and in order to express the nature of the relations which the center seeks to cultivate with its surrounding community. For this purpose, the two parties involved – artists and museum staff on the one hand and residents of the neighborhood on the other – rejected all predetermined information, facts, fears, impulses and basic assumptions about the nature and role of the institution of the art museum and, from a place of equality, embarked on a courageous journey into the unknown. This process revealed that not knowing required everyone involved to learn how to think, debate and act together in an egalitarian way, and in this way both constituted community-building and transformed the museum into a site of community. This pioneering development has in fact created a new art museum model that embodies potential possibilities, not only in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood in Holon, but in all of Israel’s public space, a model which, with respect to Jacques Rancière, I suggest we call “The Emancipated Museum”.

Translated by: Zoe Jordan