Urban Centers and Margins: the sensory regime at the Center for Digital Art in Jessy Cohen / Ruthie Ginsburg

Alongside modern art exhibitions, the Center for Digital Art also presents collaborative projects with the local community through its Complete Jessy Cohen Museum initiative. This side-by-side presentation of fundamentally different exhibitions produces a unique aesthetic-political encounter; the center’s presentation of fine art (with which the center is primarily associated) in a former school building, with its “educational” architecture, creates an unfamiliar sensorial-perceptual mix.

Display spaces usually obey and even reinforce existing socio-political divisions. For the most part, museums and galleries show fine art, whereas educational galleries and institutions show more pedagogical exhibitions, sometimes with works produced by the local community. Standard display spaces usually show autonomous art – as opposed to that typically shown in public institutions which is subject to social-pedagogical considerations. The polyphonic presentation of fine art together with projects of a social nature, with an emphasis on cultivating discourse and neighborhood identity, thus subverts the customary divisions.

The Complete Jessy Cohen Museum opened with a spacial and historical mapping of the neighborhood by its residents in collaboration the artists Effi and Amir, and is ongoing in its activities with the projects, Homeroom Class, We Are Natives and Mini Jessy Cohen. These projects were displayed alongside art exhibitions such as ‘Off to Space’, ‘Murals’, and ‘The Return of…’, which primarily relied on curatorial research, combining existing and commissioned works of art.

With its establishment in 2001, the Center for Digital Arts based itself on the digital medium which, at that time, was a new arena for creative experimentation and the establishment of avant-garde, emancipatory channels connecting art, society and technology. The center is also unique in that it is supported by public funding and is therefore relatively free of the financial considerations typical of the art market. However the center’s move to the Weizmann school building in 2012 brought about a radical shift in its activities. This shift can be understood in terms of two main factors. First – as Eyal Danon, the center’s director, has explained over the past decade – is the aspiration to establish a center in which “visitors are not only spectators but rather active participants.” That is, a center whose operations grow out of a bond with the local community and that is not merely a “display case”; Jessy Cohen neighborhood residents are seen as stakeholders. The second factor contributing to this shift relates to a change over the past decade in the field of art itself, rejecting the critical discourse and self-involved introspection which leads art down a melancholy path. Meanwhile local and global political populism – which cultivate affinities in immediate circles of affiliation while encouraging factionalism and exclusion of minority groups, thus undermining the basis for solidarity with other communities or individuals – deepen doubt in the power of the referent in art. As the divide grows, the image loses its power to represent something farther afield, beyond immediate circles.

In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard called attention to the epistemological rift and established a fertile space for critical artistic creation. However, the rise of aggressive populism has degraded the field of art and the interpretive theory that accompanies it into depressing repetitiveness. The Center for Digital Art, in its heterogenous activities, seeks to break out of this impasse by turning to unconventional avenues of activity. As I will demonstrate in the following, these explanations for the shift that has taken place in the center in the past decade are not contradictory but intertwined.

So what’s going on at the Jessy Cohen center? What does this line-up of exhibitions offer by bringing neighborhood residents’ projects together with fine art? Does it allow us to rethink the existing and often arbitrary controversies, distinctions and separations in the art world? How can the center’s work be understood in light of criticism from artists and critics regarding the positionality of artistic work in relation to the political in its broadest sense?

In seeking answers we will turn to Jacques Rancière, one of the most prominent philosophers of the last two decades who deals, among other things, with the political-aesthetic realm of contemporary art. His remarks shed an interesting light on the mix of art projects and exhibitions at the center which are displayed side by side as if belonging to the same social order. But first, in order to clarify the difference, we will briefly examine two exhibitions presented at the center.

The Murals exhibition (September 2019) dealt with the original wall art which served to educate various communities through institutional space. The exhibition was comprised of both a historical display and new works. The historical display included sketches, templates and documentation of wall works by the artists Gershon Knispel (1932-2018), Avraham Ofek (1935-1990), and Pinchas Eshet (1935-2006), and followed the creation processes of walls in public institutions: kibbutz dining rooms, military camps and other public buildings. The curator, Udi Edelman, noted that while the artists featured in the exhibition created artworks that met the needs of the establishment, their work also contained a critique of the supposedly educational, socio-political values of nationalism and patriotism typical of wall works. The artists opposed this tendency by depicting figures who could be perceived as antiheroes, referencing controversial narratives and using abstract design, as can be seen in Eshet’s works. Alongside this style of art, which dates back to the 1920s and peaked in the 1950s and 1970s, the exhibition also presented new works that responded to the wall art tradition. The participating artists exhibited works throughout the center which responded to the signage (Alona Rodeh and Hilla Toony Navok), limited control of the finished product (Raanan Harlap and Shachar Freddy Kislev) and subversive political-activist images (Elad Larom). In contrast to the works in the historical part of the exhibition, the new works of art dealt mainly in the language of contemporary art.

Murals is one exhibition in a series of exhibitions at the center that examined the role of art in the ongoing socio-political space. The other exhibition, Homeroom Class, concerned the Weizmann School, which operated for about sixty years in the building where the Center for Digital Art is now located. This exhibition considered the Jessy Cohen neighborhood’s identity through collected recordings, documents and photographs from the school itself, which had been the neighborhood’s central elementary school. Like the Murals exhibition, which presented varieties of institutional art, Homeroom examined the establishment – but not through art. Central to the exhibition were photographs and experiences of Weizmann’s graduates as presented in interviews. Thus the educational institution was presented through the personal experience of its students and teachers. The exhibition presented the ethno-class discrimination to which the Weizmann students were subjected, but also the support they received from educational figures who helped the children of immigrants integrate into Israeli society. Together with the artist Gal Leshem, some previous students created a mental map, overlaid on the school map, made up of their memories. This map was assembled into three tracks: “Rite of Passage” (the academic track), “Weizmann Gourmet Salad” (the cultural track), and “School as Home” (the interpersonal track). The documentation is spread throughout the center according to the locations of the relevant memories. Graduates of the school relayed their stories – some critically and some compassionately. Listening through headphones, the Weizmann graduates can be heard describing the experiences they had as children in their own voices. The retrospective that came together with stories memories and formative events from the past, told in the adult voices of today, wove together documentation and reflection.

The archive is a major occupation in contemporary art. Many artists disrupt existing archives or incorporate alternative findings into them as an act of critique. However unlike art projects that cast doubt on the relationship between document and fact, such as that of the Atlas Group, the purpose of collecting testimony and documents in Homeroom was to forge an identity for the local community. Even if similar experiences transpired in other marginalized neighborhoods, the Homeroom project exposed the unique history of the local community. The work of collecting, cataloguing and identifying meaningful themes criticizes the hegemonic discourse that shapes history and imposes its needs on the archive. The project revealed the Jessy Cohen neighborhood culture through experiences and photographs from ceremonies, trips and everyday school life, and the work of collecting and cataloging reaffirmed its complexity in contrast to ideological-cultural dominance. In the act of creating the local museum with its various projects, the museum frees itself from influence and subordination even as it focuses on positive socio-cultural building, and does not present a distinctly subversive political agenda.

Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts, in the introduction to their essay collection on Rancière, note the three primary areas which his work addresses: historiography, politics and aesthetics. The polemical dimension can be traced through his writings on each of those fields[1].

Rancière describes history as consisting of documents, voices and gestures emerging from the common space. He maintains that there is no stable hierarchy between disciplinary writing and the object of study, and his perspective emphasizes the flaws that can be found in a cohesive and institutional historical narrative when drawing attention to groups and individuals. Rancière claims that similar flaws can be found in the work of different people, including those who are not attributed to the creative class (artists, authors and the like), but that historians tend to ignore them or minimize their significance – which is to say, to exclude ordinary women and men from historical and sociological studies even though they took part in the historical action.

In the political sphere, Rancière points out that the political appears in times of controversy, when individuals or groups expose an injustice done to them and demand equality in the course of their struggle – not as something that the government owes them as citizens, but as a fundamental political assumption.

This also relates to the third field – aesthetics. In his book “The Division of the Senses” (as well as in other writings by Rancière), he presents three regimes in art. The first regime is the ethical regime of imagery, based on a Platonic conception that seeks art in its pure form. The second is the representative regime of art, which has its roots in Aristotle’s thinking but came to fruition in the 17th and 18th centuries, when art disengaged from serving morality to allowing the object itself central significance. The third regime is the aesthetic. As opposed to the first two regimes mentioned, and known from different periods in art history, the aesthetic regime primarily left its mark on artistic practice in the last three decades, and can also be spotted in the activities of the Center for Digital Art. The aesthetic regime abolishes the prevailing hierarchies of representation, and promotes a nonhierarchical order between the subjects and the distribution of styles, as well as equal treatment of the fit between form and content. When the hierarchy between life and art is erased, as is the case in contemporary art, art is perceived as egalitarian, on the one hand, and singular, on the other. The aesthetic regime seeks to abolish the demarcation between life and art, to foster radical equality and give distinct expression to singularity.

The sensory and aesthetic arrangement in the variety of exhibitions and projects at the Center for Digital Art likewise seeks to abolish the demarcation between life and art, and involves blurring of socio-political hierarchies. The combination of art and community, and the construction of a local-neighborhood identity alongside theoretical and historical-curatorial investigation in the field of art – do not draw boundaries between margins and center. On the contrary, they make it possible to rethink them as belonging together with “something in common as well as outlying elements, […that make it possible, in the political sense] to see who can take part in the commonality according to what he does and according to the time and space in which this activity takes place.[2] The Murals and Homeroom exhibitions are not displayed side by side by chance, but rather illuminate on one another and make it possible to rethink the construction of the institution and of the individual within it, even if they do so using different aesthetic languages. Ordinary people, such as residents of Jessy Cohen, take part in the aesthetic work just like the artists and curators who work at the Center. Spectators, creators and people who do not typically belong to the field of art take part in the construction of the aesthetic as an element that shapes the political – and vice versa.

Translated by: Zoe Jordan

[1]  Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics, Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts editors, Duke University Press, 2009.

[2]   ז’אק רנסייר, חלוקת החושי, תרגום: שי רוז׳נסקי, הוצאת רסלינג (2000), עמ׳ 49-50.

Jacques Rancière, Partage du sensible : esthétique et politique. Resling (2000), pp 49-50. [own translation]