Method in Development – Research Groups at the Institute for Public Presence / Avital Barak

In 2017, Udi Edelman invited me to lead a research group to examine ‘gesture’ within the framework of the Institute for Public Presence. The multiplicity of interpretations and applications of gesture in theory and in practice demanded a flexible activity space to which we could invite people from various fields to help us disassemble and reassemble the concept.

That was the start of a long-lasting collaboration throughout which a kind of group-working “method” began to take shape. In retrospect I can say that the notion of “gesture” plays an important role in this project, both as the subject of the group’s first experience working together, and as a concept that remained present in projects that followed. It addresses the presence, the interruption, the halting, the political potential and the action in the public space which are fundamental to the work of the Institute for Public Presence as well as my personal research which investigates movement and limitation. Moreover, in terms of liminal space (as defined by Giorgio Agamben), it was the first border zone patrol that we carried out.

The artists, researchers and curators who participated in the group brought a variety of gestures and theoretical perspectives to the table. With regard to Benjamin and Agamben, we considered the gesture in terms of its potential to interrupt a sequence or offer critique, while Goffman’s sociological thinking opened new ways of thinking about gesture as a code that organizes language and identity. We practiced touch and breathing as physical gestures in movement praxis. We considered the gesture in theater and performance art, as well as in feminist, political, and poetic contexts.

The liminality of the gesture manifested in the liminal space created in the meetings of the group, which was characterized by its interdisciplinary, intermedial nature and the multiple world views brought to bear. This liminal space holds political potential in the social and economic sense. The fact that a group of (very busy) people met for almost a year to rethink artistic and political action, performative spaces and different disruptive possibilities with no definitive goal or financial incentive is a complete “waste” of time in terms of the neoliberal market. We gathered for the sake of gathering and the synergy of collaborative thinking, with no final ‘product’ or deadline, by which we resisted the powerful economic forces of our time.

The potential generated in the first group was further realized and perhaps more cohesive in the second group we created which dealt with “border patrols”. For the “border patrols” group we decided to invite people from a wider variety of fields of expertise. Planners and architects, environmental activists and artists from other disciplines joined the small circle who remained from the gesture group. This time too we did not determine a specific goal but invited the participants to take us to the border spaces that interested them. We also added actual tours in geographical, social and political border spaces, which characterize the place in which we live.

The liminality of border spaces bears great potential for action and creativity which deviate from the mechanisms of order and control, thus summoning performances and interactions that cannot exist in the (geographic, social, or economic) center. Throughout the group’s meetings, we were exposed to interesting tensions, like the possibility of the margins existing as centers and borders or frontiers at the same time, as is happening in Kibbutz Kabri which, despite its being in the “far” north of Israel, functions as an artistic center. Likewise, a neighborhood within the Tel Aviv municipality can exist as a border zone with that potential for alternate existence (which is not, of course, detached from the systems of power and market) in that it is home to people from the social, economic and political margins living together in a colorful multiplicity which would not be possible in a hegemonic center.

The “Border Patrols” project illuminates how liminal thinking may be expressed in other ways. We invited the artist Michal Baror to join us and began to plan our series of journeys but as we were formulating the open call for the project, the coronavirus broke out and posed a major obstacle. However instead of cancelling we decided to adapt ourselves to the new situation and declared it a virtual journey. The journey took place online and was run like a game in which the route was determined according to a lottery and the condition for moving through it was that it must be conducted as if the journey was taking place in physical reality. Thus a shared and stratified virtual wandering took shape as a random route in which each station took on the character of the person who led it. Zoom – the platform which became popular during these pandemic times – served as the roundtable around which we gathered. The participants’ varied practices took us through images and narratives, time and space, beyond borders and around the corner. A new world of spatial inquiry opened up which we are still learning and developing.

In the second half of 2020, we started a second journey, this time to Tel Aviv’s Abu Kabir neighborhood in which we tried, at least conceptually, to synthesize the virtual and the actual space. Inspired by the situationists, we practiced stratified psychogeography.

Psychogeography combines the physical, concrete-planning information that exists in the urban space with the playful, emotional and social experience that accompanies wandering and drifting. “Psychogeography” was coined by Guy Debord in 1955 as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” It’s goal is to shake off and fracture the automatic, the predetermined and monolithic ways in which the city is experienced, and to enable playful tools and subversive strategies for creating new and unexpected awareness in the urban landscape, an alternative history of place, and alternative channels of movement.

As the internet enables expansion of the boundaries of wandering and inquiry, the group in Abu Kabir was able to move between the geographic and the virtual, between the distant past, the recent past and the present, and between existential experiences, sometimes traumatic and complex, of the neighborhood’s residents. We carried out our wandering in an attempt to produce an alternative body of knowledge that is not based on power hierarchy nor obligated to any discipline or medium, but that produces social and political interpretations which may be translated into some sort of action in the world.

Broadly, the ongoing project is accumulating collective knowledge and a method, based on group encounters, free of hierarchy and leadership, is taking shape. The encounters enable spatial and virtual wandering which generate different modes of knowledge and praxis as well as the potential for presence and action which oppose market constructions and prevailing ways of thinking and making sense of what we know.

Translated by: Zoe Jordan