Art in Functional Spaces / Karni Barzilay

“The quiet contemplative space of art can be a refuge, a remedy, an aesthetic antidote to life. But the full and seemingly fully occupied space of life can also be a space for art.”

Mary Jane Jacob

The relationship between art and life is a complex one, unfolding across a myriad of theoretical and visual levels. Among other things, it informs and is manifested in artworks that summon overlaps between private life, family and daily activities and artmaking. The sometimes-dreary routine is transformed into a critical and political arena in artworks that blur the line between art and life by artists like Guy Ben Ner, Boaz Tal, Elinor Carucci, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, to name a few, who entwine the quotidian with the subversive.

In this text, I would like to delve into the relationship between life and art in spaces for contemporary art located within functional, familiar, and quotidian complexes, as part of the fabric of life in Israel. Generic spaces, most of which are designed to provide leisure services to the local community. As the director and curator of Kav 16 – Community Gallery for Contemporary Art, which sits inside the Neve Eliezer Community Center, I often contemplate the relationship between the art space and the communal and even institutional routine, and how art can be integrated into the flow of life in a multifunctional environment.

The nature of the connection between art and “life itself” – meaning, the place and the people in it, both those working at the center and the population that consumes the range of activities it offers, is the source of power and uniqueness but also the challenge of art institutions like Kav 16 Gallery and the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Although disparate in nature and activity, both operate in an educational, cultural, vibrant, and peripheral setting. Established in 2001, the Israeli Center for Digital Art offers a flexible model as a complex with diverse activities that includes a school, community center, laboratory, restaurant, and exhibition venue. The center embraces the principles of equal access for all, freedom of thought and opinion, and as far as possible, genuine equal partnership. Kav 16 is a municipal gallery that has been operating since 1998 in a community center, at Neve Eliezer Neighborhood in southeast Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Its unconventional location, on the second floor of the center, engenders a complex relationship with its surroundings. On the one hand, it is one of the services offered by the community center, alongside the library, conservatory, gym, sports and dance classes and more. On the other hand, it is autonomous in its operation, and to a large extent remains a foreign element that fails to take root and assimilate into its surrounding.

Community centers were established in Israel in the 1970s in order to offer a variety of education, sports, leisure, and culture services. “The community center is supposed to work with and for the community … the community center does not have an intimidating image and to today it seems that it is perceived as a professional institute that offers a comprehensive and independent service.”[1] Today, community centers in Israel continue to offer a wide range of activities, from welfare services to leisure culture – a variety that touches on the many possibilities that life offers. The fact that the gallery sits inside a community center frames it as a professional space that follows a municipal standard – a “service” for the community, like the other resources at the center. Unlike independent (commercial or collective) galleries that may be detached from their surroundings, a gallery in a community center is intrinsically linked to the place and it seems that it (also) answers to slightly different “rules” and codes that stem from the institution itself. In light of all these, we would have expected the viewer who chances upon the exhibition venue to see the gallery as part of the various functions that the community center offers.

The community center is a functional space, based on systems that to a large extent place the consumers at their center and allows them to use the services at their choosing and control. This is not the case with a contemporary art gallery, as a space of observation and contemplation, in which the visitor is invited to relinquish control, a place that encourages independent thinking. These two different conceptions of the visitor’s place lead to a divergence between the two spaces who operate along parallel paths. Operating within an organizational institution whose culture is largely foreign to its own basic assumptions, the gallery may find itself pushed down the community center’s hierarchy, and even face the demand to “justify” its existence time and again. This deceptive situation sometimes leads to the expectation that art venues “take on” and even “compete” with the variety of services available at the center: place themselves under the same functional and even entertainment categories and adopt a capitalist financial model of events and activities, making themselves more accessible to the general public. For me, the answer to this conflict is different: I do not believe that art has to compete with life itself in order to garner attention or recognition, but rather operate inside it, as a present agent, attentive to different ways of life.

Uri Gershuni, Untitled, 2001

In today’s world, the intersection of the paths of life and the paths of art brings about encounters that are rife with resistance and mistrust but also leads to unique collaborations. In the case of Kav 16 Gallery, this is manifested in the attempt to think about the gallery as a site-specific institute – an organism that depends on its surrounding in order to survive and thrive. In an essay published in the journal Mafteakh: Lexical Review of Political Thought, the artist and co-founder of the Jerusalem Barbur Gallery, Masha Zusman, writes about the display space as a non-neutral place: “It itself creates the context, conditions, and space for activity through which the political potential of the artwork is realized. Of all the institutions that engage in visual art, the gallery, meaning a not large space that displays art, is usually located in an urban-neighborhood space, has a small staff, and is open to the general public, is the one that has a particularly strong potential to sustain a real political practice as a place that reformulates, in its own body, an equal shared existence…. Of course, I do not oppose the inventions of new forms and models of art institutions. However, as a recognized and traditional institution, the gallery (as well as the museum) is the one that can bridge cultural, economic, and educational gaps and create a common, inclusive and egalitarian cultural space.”[2] This rings particularly true of a gallery that operates at the heart of a neighborhood community center.

Context is one of the significant factors through which one can change the art viewing experience, which is often perceived as alienating. Multi-purpose spaces, ones that are not neutral, may also offer other and new possibilities for the art venue. The art viewing experience is influenced by the social, physical, and cultural contexts in which it takes place, while meaning emerges from the intersection of all three.[3] The visitors to a museum or commercial display venue arrive with an awareness of the place: they are familiar with the codes of visiting an art space and the rules of conduct (do not touch the artworks, talk in a low voice, etc.), and are attuned to the art consumption experience. But what happens when art “catches” you unprepared, in slippers or on your way from one place to another? In the familiar, almost domestic realm? Here the experience, usually imbued with a sense of solemn grandeur, where the interruptions and concerns of everyday life are suspended and muted, becomes as casual as a visit to the library. A new experience is made possible, different but at the same time (perhaps) less intimidating.

Nurit Yarden, First Floor, 2018. From the series “6 Sheshet HaYamim Blv.”

The curator and art scholar Mary Jane Jacob described exhibitions as a space of openness, allowing an experience that does not rely on prior knowledge or preconceived notions of how we are supposed to feel and what we are supposed to experience. Not knowing, she argues, the legitimacy to experience a full, individual experience, can be frightening, but we need more spaces like exhibition venues that can take us beyond ourselves.[4] The two concepts that Jacob invokes in the context of life and art – not knowing and openness – are concepts that we usually associate with spontaneous and unexpected events in our lives, and are not (necessarily) linked with the art viewing experience. The presence of art venues in familiar living spaces (in this case, a community center) opens up the possibility of experiencing not knowing and openness in an artistic context. For me, this model holds the upmost potential suggested by Jacob’s proposal: This an encounter that summons for the accidental visitor the possibility of openness and an understanding of not knowing, the opportunity to experience art in a way that is (also) free from knowing and preconceived notions – as part of everyday life. This situation allows the expansion of intersections, encounters, and interfaces as well as build trust, providing, of course, that we take into account the obvious – the flexibility and dynamism with which life and art interchangeably connect and disconnect.

Translated by: Maya Shimony

[1] Uri Yanay, The Development of Community Centers in Israel, talk at the Dr. Arnulf M. Pins annual memorial lecture, Paul Baerwald School of Social Work at the Hebrew University, 1982 (in Hebrew).

[2] Masha Zusman, “The Art Gallery,” Mafteakh: Lexical Review of Political Thought 6, 2013, pp. 19-28.

[3] John Falk and Lynn Dierking, “The Museum Experience Revisited,” from: Museum Education, Orit Shaham-Gover (ed.), 1993, p. 13.

[4] Mary Jane Jacob, “Marking Space for Art” in: What Makes A Great Exhibition? Paula Marincola, Philadelphia Exhibition initiative, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006, pp.134-141.