A New Model of Public Space / Hadas Ophrat and Alona Nitzan-Shiftan [1]

The entire gamut of artistic interventions by artists and groups that operated at the Israeli Center for Digital Art between 2010-2016 can be seen as one project – the Jessy Cohen project. In this sense, with the move to Jessy Cohen neighborhood, the Israeli Center for Digital Art gradually ceased to serve as a hosting institution or an impartial display venue. It started to initiate artistic interventions in the neighborhood in order to bring about social change and “assume responsibility within reality,” in the words of the center’s founder and curator Galit Eilat.[2] For Eilat, “art may not be able to change the world, but it can at least take part in it.”[3] In this respect, the center started exercising artistic means of social activism in a series of exhibitions, initiated actions, and events in the public and private space. The center’s strategy ascribed great importance to creating a network that connects the different players in the municipal authority, in public institutions, and in the community as a substitute for the art product, the artifact. This functional shift must also be emphasized in light of the changing interests of the municipality, which encouraged the foundation of the center as part of Holon’s rebranding as a contemporary and young city through art, design, and especially the digital medium. Holon Municipality has adapted to the change in the center’s agenda and recognized the benefits it holds; since 2012, the center began to serve as a tool for urban renewal, and more specifically – a tool for neighborhood renewal.

The shift in the Israeli Center of Digital Art started in March of 2010, when Eyal Danon took on the position of director and diverted the focus to community and neighborhood oriented art projects. In April of that year, the center published an open call for artists, architects, and designers to propose site-specific projects that will take place in the neighborhood. Following the publication of the open call, artists were taken on tours of the neighborhood and met with the residents. With that, the artistic and community discourse crossed boundaries and mediums. The artists whose initiatives were selected were: Idit Porat, Effi Weiss, Amir Borenstein, Ronen Eidelman, Meir Tati, Ayelet Zohar, architect Gil Mualem Doron and Daniel Meir.

The change of the curatorial line from the sociopolitical channel, which Eilat led in her decade as director (2001-2010), to the community arena led by Danon required structural reorganization. At first, the activity left the center’s display spaces and expanded to a store that was rented in the neighborhood’s shopping center, and later it moved to the residents’ homes, public parks, the Lazarus Community Center, and the Weizmann neighborhood school. On the center’s website, the change of agenda is defined as a geo-sociological shift: “As a space for public art, the [center] constantly questions the place of art institutions in the society in which they operate. This raises political and social issues that we believe art should not ignore.”[4] Renting the store allowed the center to operate at the heart of the neighborhood, serving almost as a branch or an extension of sorts. Workshops, artist talks, display of local projects, and exhibitions of artists living in the neighborhood were held at the store, which sometimes was also used as the center’s production office. One of the special projects at the store was HALAS.AM – a recording studio that was to be developed into a local online radio station, an idea that did not come to fruition at the time. The other projects presented at the store and the events held in the public space of the neighborhood also received limited response.

Two years after it started its activities in the neighborhood, the Israeli Center for Digital Art moved from the Neve Arazim neighborhood to the main building of the school at Jessy Cohen neighborhood (2012), a move that proved decisive to the community and municipal activity of the center. In the building in the school courtyard, the center launched the Fablab – a digital design workshop that served artists and the neighborhood residents alike. Its location at the heart of the neighborhood emphasized the curatorial intention to create a model of action rooted in the idea of art in the community, in order to “make the neighborhood a model of pluralistic and multicultural urban existence.”[5] From that point on, the center was defined as a “space for public art.” The display galleries, events and art projects, in the store and throughout the neighborhood, the archive, the library, and later also the design workshop, as well as the art magazine (Maarav) and the online radio station (HALAS.AM), were all created and perceived as a collective public space. At the end of another four years, the spatial-architectural transformation will also be completed.

In the fifth year of the Jessy Cohen project, the Israeli Center for Digital Art found itself in the process of restructuring. The characteristics of its activities – between holding art exhibitions and investing in community projects – are once again re-examined: Instead of exhibitions, the center chooses to use the display galleries to reflect the community activities taking place inside and outside the center, around the neighborhood. From 2016, the display of art exhibitions, which was a central avenue of activity in the center’s first 15 years, gains equal significance to social-community activities. The modes of display also change. Danon states specifically that the appearance of the art center, meaning, its identification as an exhibition venue, drives away many populations.[6]

This change is the basis for the center’s new program, both for the school’s building and for the courtyard that surrounds it. The ground floor, which used to house offices, a conference room, and a wide entrance hall, became a space for lounging, studying, and communal activity. In a part of the entrance space, (“post” as Danon puts it),[7] stands a printing press used for printing publications. The artist duo Effy & Amir set up the Complete Jessy Cohen Museum in the wide hallway that leads to a large communal kitchen, which serves the community, the center staff, and its visitors. The center’s lobby becomes a community café – Jessecafé, opened as part of the Glocal Neighbors project (2014-2015). The project was conceived as a collaboration between Jessy Cohen neighborhood in Holon and the Nordbahnhof neighborhood in Stuttgart, Germany, implementing the collaborative idea of the glocal (a portmanteau of the words global and local), which suggests that neighborhoods with similar socioeconomic characteristics in peripheral cities share common conditions and difficulties, hence the art centers in these neighborhoods can share and replicate one mode of action from one another. Here, opening the space as communal gains a conceptual shift, where the space is not only a neighborhood local space but a public universal space, which summons the examination and implementation of artistic and social models on an international level while transforming them into generic projects.

The model of operation of the international artists’ collective WochenKlausur is another prominent example of inter-institutional collaboration. The Viennese collective operates in different cities around the world through local art centers. When the group is invited to operate in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, it chooses to launch the Home Improvement Service project. The project offers the residents free home improvements by building on a network of collaborations. The collaboration with a curatorial institution like the Israeli Center for Digital Art exceeds mere practical reasons. WochenKlausur respond to the challenge of political and social intervention, which they promote through the integration of institutes and organizations that represent branches of the establishment. They assert that this collaboration holds the real potential to generate meaningful change in the public sphere, since on the one hand, the hosting institute adopts activist tactics, and its agenda is reshaped around social and urban goals. Indirectly, the authorities (municipality, community administration and so on) also become partners in the action, if only through their organizational and financial support of the art center/institution. On the other hand, aware of the financial potential of mobilizing the establishment for their actions, the artists also indirectly associate themselves with the establishment. The characteristics of the WochenKlausur collective activities are a clear example of the conscious and mutual dependence in the artist-establishment relationship.

Alon Schwabe, an Israeli artist and urbanist who joined WochenKlausur’s project in Holon, outlines the public significance of the action: “There is no point in judging the project as an [art] object that produces an aesthetic experience. Their transformation of the artistic establishment is in that they were among the first to introduce activist actions into art institutions – that’s the significant change. That is the artistic power. It is an aesthetic transformation in the broad sense of the word. The very fact that you can come to the museum and see people working, or they open an office or headquarters.”[8] Schwabe points to the project’s impact on the public in that residents came to the Israeli Center for Digital Art for the first time to report a problem or to coordinate a renovation of their apartment. This sets in motion the transformation of the art institution from an elitist place, mostly alienated from its surroundings, to an active public space.

The collective adopts an organizational tactic: Converting the function of the art institution into municipal and communal functions. However, Schwabe argues that the functional change that takes place in the art institution upon becoming activist is an artistic, conceptual act, which draws its power from the very fact that the art institution is the one that initiates, hosts, or display the action. Thus, in the exhibition We’re Not Alone, held at the Israeli Center for Digital Art (2013), the collective members opened a home improvement counseling office for public housing tenants in the Jessy Cohen neighborhood. The office did not have an “artistic” look: a desk, chairs, air conditioner, florescent lighting, office supplies and nothing more, but it was an artistic statement. Was the choice of this “office” appearance a manipulative tactic to disguise the “artistic” look so as to avoid an elitist alienation from the residents?

Transforming the art center into a public space also stood at the core of Gym (Ulam) project, created by the artist Luciana Kaplun, curator Mai Omer, and designer Ira Shalit, in collaboration with local Ethiopian teens. Launched in January 2014 in the former Weizmann School gym, the project is founded on the principle “that art can also create infrastructures, structures, and communities.”[9] The hall contains mobile units fitted with wheels, most of which were comprised of old pieces of furniture, equipped for various activities. Each space is defined by its distinctive kit. Due to its modular nature, the dimensions of the space are not fixed. The space is dynamic, designed with mobile partitions, and changes along with the activity: party kit, film projection kit, design tools kit, and learning tools allow the group to hold lectures, workshops, film projections and a range of other activities in the space.

The result is a T.A.Z – a temporary autonomous zone, as a model of a space;[10] the spatial intervention as though declares that it has no intention of transforming the space of the sports hall, but merely to suggest an alternative social-architectural situation that allows the design of changeable activity spaces. The guiding principle of Gym is the creation of a space that brings to the fore the existence of conflicts as a civic act. The theoretician Chantal Mouffe claims that Western society struggles to contend with insoluble conflicts. The attempt to reach a compromise boils down to the tendency to erase the conflict or conceal/contain it. Like an open public space, the space of Gym also summons controversial, at times even illegal activity. The artists operate in the place aware that the conflicts that the teens present cannot be resolved; all they need to do is to acknowledge them. The space should be “an agonistic work environment: an environment that allows room for conflict and disagreement on politics, lifestyle, and beliefs.”[11]

Artistic intervention is an activist act. Tracing the modes of operation of various interventions demonstrates that activism does not necessarily operates in defiance or opposition, but rather allows for inclusion, collaboration, and consensus as a means of dealing with conflicts and contrary to what we might expect of residents in need or who feel disenfranchised by the representatives of the authorities. Mouffe’s conception offers a prism for understanding the situations created by the center in general, and the Gym project in particular, as a conflictual space that assuages the binary perception of resident-establishment, and seeks multiple channels for the realization of urban citizenship.

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Art and culture centers are public spaces for all intents and purposes. The transformation of the Israeli Center for Digital Art as it turned into an action space lies in its accessibility to the general public, and especially to the residents of the Jessy Cohen neighborhood, who were previously excluded from it. In the different interventions, it is apparent that the public and the private are not distinct and disparate values. Artistic interventions permeated private spaces, while the participants in the Gym project were able to demarcate a private space within the sports hall and treat it as their own, and against the conventional rules in public institutions. This distinction validates another characteristic of artistic interventions in the public space – the distinction that a public space may function as an interpersonal space and not necessarily as a collective space, since a public space by its nature does not operate in a homogeneous and collective way. With the establishment of a collective space, the space becomes the groups’/users’ “place” and ceases to function as a public space. Thus, the six-year trajectory of the Israeli Center for Digital Art examined in this text, presents a new model of institutional space of action, which functions as a public, autonomous, and interpersonal space.

Translated by: Maya Shimony

[1] This paper is based on chapters from the thesis Performative space: art interventions in the urban public space. The thesis focused on the activities of the Israeli Center for Digital Art and the artistic activities in Holon’s Jessy Cohen neighborhood. Supervised by Prof. Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, it was submitted by Hadas Ophrat as a master’s thesis in the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Technion, Haifa, 2016.

[2] Eyal Danon and Udi Edelman (eds.), Agenda – the Israel Center for Digital Art, Holon, 2012, p. 10 (in Hebrew).

[3]  Ibid., p. 196.

[4] From the Israeli Center for Digital Art website  http://www.digitalartlab.org.il/ArticleHeb.asp?thread_id=14 (11.7.2015) (in Hebrew).

[5] From: The Jessy Cohen Project: Action Plan – General Outline, Archives of the Israeli Center for Digital Art, file: general text_jessy_100111 (in Hebrew).

[6] Gilly Karjevsky, Eyal Danon, Udi Edelman (eds.), Neighborhood as a Global Arena – Reader, Israeli Center for Digital Art (undated), p. 6.

[7] Danon used the term “post” rather than a “room” or “space” (Hadas Ophrat, interview with Eyal Danon, 7.8.2015). The preference for functionality and transience is clear.

[8] Hadas Ophrat, interview with Alon Schwabe, 20.7.2015.

[9] From the credo of the Gym project (info pages, Israeli Center for Digital Art, 2015, pp. 1-2 [in Hebrew]).

[10] Hakim Bey coined the concept “temporary autonomous zone” (T.A.Z.), which expresses the principle of operating in autonomous spaces, which are fundamentally transient. Transience is “a tactic of disappearance” that is also manifested in the designed materials, principles of camouflage (a staged action posing as a real action) and a principle of mobility. The autonomous zone also allows the impulses and aggression of marginal groups, including anarchist groups, to build social relationships in the space without fixed structures. See Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, 1985.

[11] Gym, an ongoing art project – guidelines (info pages), 2014, pp. 2-3. See also Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics – Thinking the World Politically, Verso, London & New York, 2013, p. 130.