Gym (Ulam): Space, Dialogue, Solidarity, or Community Centre as an Art Project / Mai Omer

In her book Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed scrutinises the work of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.[1]  She uses his texts to envision his table: both the conceptual table he writes about and the physical one on which he writes. Ahmed places the table in a sombre, masculine study located at the front of the house, far from the domestic commotion; the children and housework are nothing but faint background noises. Ahmed compares this work environment to a text by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich in which she describes her attempts to compose a letter. Whenever Rich delves into her inner world, one of her children demands her attention. In other words, while Husserl’s attention was devoted solely to the object of writing, Rich’s attention was divided between the object of writing and the children. This comparison reminds me of the difference between the type of artist I was trained to be and the art I make today. As a student, l was taught that good art is non-compromising; like traditional phenomenology, it keeps a sterile distance from reality and demands total concentration on objects. I learned that good art is transcendental and, therefore, must be created by looking at, rather than created together with. When studying examples of courageous avant-garde practices, I was even referred to works by artists such as Renzo Martens, Boris Mikhailov, and Artur Żmijewski, who treat people like transcendental objects that can be exploited and humiliated. After graduating, I realized that the training I had received and the methodologies in which I had specialized were incongruent with my ideology. I did not want to make art about the people around me for an abstract art audience; I wanted to create with the people around me and to create for us. Furthermore, I aspired to create artworks that could act as an invitation for strangers to become acquainted with me and with one another. At that time, I decided to change my artistic approach. I unlearned the approach of focusing all my attention onto objects and relearned how to work by being attentive to situations, ideas, and the wishes and needs of others. Since then, the biggest opportunity I have had to work in such a collaborative manner, and to further elaborate and develop a collaborative methodology, is through the project Gym (Ulam in Hebrew).

Gym is a collective artwork that I initiated and worked on while I was a curator at the Israeli Centre for Digital Art in Jessy Cohen. The project’s name was derived from its location in a former primary school’s gym. The project functions as a community-cultural-experimental space for meeting, sharing, learning, creating, or simply hanging out. It was launched in 2014 and at the time of writing is still ongoing. I collectively created Gym with fellow artists and educators Luciana Kaplun and Ira Shalit, and a group of local young people including: Aviel Muluye, Adano Shama, Eyov Tesfaun, Ingedao Belay, Ishambal Tadale, David Eshete, David Tafara, David (Nechi) Hami, Telahun Adama, Temesgen Atalay, Yosef Mulu, Michael and Elimelech Birkoy, Moshe Ayala, Moshe Tafalet, Samiyan Ankoana, Stav Ababa and Shai Adiso. This group soon grew, as participants’  friends and siblings joined and the project became the Centre for Digital Art’s main educational programme shortly after it was founded. Gym is a long-term, fluid, and dynamic art project. Throughout its six years of existence, Gym has had various functions and configurations. It was our studio, school, café, club, cinema, museum, football field, barbershop, kitchen, and our extended living room.

Gym is a domestic place outside the home that offers a combination of privacy and community. The project fosters a sense of belonging by being responsive, enabling, and welcoming. Anyone who enters Gym can leave their mark; they can create, build, add, change and alter, while being considerate of others. Consequently, Gym’s aesthetic is the amalgamation of the young people’s artistic taste with ours. External influences have joined the mix: art movements such as constructivism, hip-hop and punk, architects like Marjory Allen, artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn and Avital Geva, and guest artists who were invited to collaborate with the project. Our aesthetic choices came out of a philosophy of working with what we have. This starting point contributed to our ability to operate in an unmediated way, with minimal dependence on external factors or resources. In fact, Gym is not under supervision and it does not need to report to donors, the art establishment, nor the education system.[2] The project’s ability to operate with a relatively modest budget and the autonomy it has by virtue of its definition as art, allowed us to be flexible. For years, our work was not the result of commitments to produce output, to a schedule, or to a preset programme, but a response to wishes, needs, and group dynamics. In other words, we created the space, the objects it contains, and the artistic programme, by talking, learning, counseling, accompanying, guiding, experimenting, failing and succeeding, while being attentive to both people and objects.

Gym is rooted in dialogue; dialogue is simultaneously its product and its facilitator. Our collaboration began when I invited the founding artists to work with the young people and myself on a specific project. Intimacy was created and long-term relations have been built through the space itself, its operation, our collective presence within it and the production and organisation of its objects. A true partnership between white artists and Black and Mizrahi teenagers—one that is based on empathy, mutual respect, and on the challenging of pre-existing hierarchies—is not common in Israeli art, or in Israel.

There are many reasons why such a partnership is rare. One reason is the aforementioned artistic training, which teaches artists to see non-artists as either the artwork’s subject matter or as an annoyance, but not as co-creators. Furthermore, partnerships between people with highly different levels of privilege are complex. Such a partnership requires sensitivity, self-reflection, modesty, tolerance, and willingness to compromise and to change. Accordingly, there is a lot of criticism and skepticism of such partnerships. Some critics are separatists who contest that these partnerships could never be fair or beneficial (as one activist said to me during a symposium: “what can an Ethiopian boy learn from you?!”) Presumably, this criticism is based on a bitter truth; most of these partnerships tend to further exploit the less privileged side, whether with malice or in good faith. With this in mind, we too refused to collaborate with some organisations and institutions, fearing their involvement might harm the young people of colour. Another possible reason for this criticism is that our very ability as white artists to invite Black children to work with us without any supervision is indicative of the hierarchy in Israeli society and the type of protection Ethiopian youth receive, or lack thereof.

When a real partnership does form, it bears significant benefits. According to poet and activist Audre Lorde: “Only within that interdependency of different strength, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters”.[3] Thanks to our differences, we became familiar with new life styles, perceptions, opinions, theories, and methodologies that had been foreign to us. Familiarity does not imply agreement. On the contrary, from our earliest meetings to this day, we have had countless disagreements about religion, sexuality, politics, aesthetics, and identity. Thanks to the nature of our relationship, not only have these arguments never escalated into fights, but they have increased our intimacy and our ability to support one another during difficult times which, unfortunately, are plentiful in the Israeli reality. By facilitating this political discourse, the project can be described using theorist Chantal Mouffe’s term as “an agonistic space”.[4] According to Mouffe, it is a space of constructive conflicts needed for the formation of political identities. Correspondingly, at Gym, people can formulate an argument, express their thoughts and feelings using various means, encounter opposite views, and form an opinion. In one of our discussions (it might have been during an argument about a military operation in Gaza, a discussion about sexuality and sexism, or a conversation about police brutality), I was struck by the notion that Gym is one of the only places (in certain cases it is the only place) where young people can discuss controversial issues in depth. As teenagers, many prefer not to talk with their parents about these topics, and in the Israeli education system (the one accessible to the young people of Jessy Cohen), there is no place for critical thinking. The discussions at Gym and the accessibility to art as a means of expression expanded the discourse and introduced new ways of seeing, understanding, and coping with the Israeli reality – a reality that is, for the most part, chaotic, violent and dangerous, particularly for the young people who have been taking part in the project.

Above all, I hope that Gym, as a people-centred art project, was and still is a safe space for them. As I was working on the project, it occurred to me that one of its main objectives is to improve young people’s ability to find the inner strength that will help them cope with an unjust society. Most of the young people who had or have been taking part in the project are Ethiopian immigrants. All of them were automatically categorized by the local welfare services as “youth at risk”. This definition might be accurate, but not in the conventional sense. Even those who have grown up with supportive families, who thrive in school, are confident and have high self-esteem, are at risk. Some of the dangers lurk because they are teenagers in Jessy Cohen, a neighborhood struggling with years of neglect, stigma that labels its residents criminals, and insufficient social services. They are also at risk as immigrants: in a society based on nepotism and favoritism such as the Israeli one, immigrants suffer real disadvantages. Perhaps more than anything, they are at risk as Black people in Israel. In the same year that Gym was launched, Avera Mengistu, an Israeli Black man who suffers from a mental illness, crossed the border to Gaza. He has been abandoned there ever since by a government that is not taking any action that could hasten his return. A year earlier, the state admitted to coercing Ethiopian female migrants to take the fertility-suppressing Depo Provera injections. As part of Gym, we talked, cried, fought, and tried to grapple with the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of police brutality cases. Some victims, like Yosef Salmasa and Solomon Teka, were unknown to the young people at Gym. Others like Damas Pikada, had personal connections to the young people. Oftentimes, the victims were the young people themselves. To this day, I struggle to fathom the sheer amount of dangers that lurk for the young people I worked with, dangers that continue to follow them today as young adults. No art project can protect from these dangers, but I do dare to believe that Gym offers a respite from hardship and generates the power, courage, and sustenance described by Lorde.

In February 2020, I presented Gym to socio-political art practitioners at Autograph ABP in London. After I finished my presentation, a woman in the audience asked me about the project’s legacy. Her question perplexed me; it was the first time I was asked about the legacy of a well-established project that has been running for several years. At that moment I realized that it was no coincidence that this question was asked in the UK and not in Israel and in my response I tried to delineate the challenging context in which Gym operates. I explained the difficulty in planning ahead where the politics are capricious, budgets are cut at a moment’s notice, and established institutions collapse every year. I could not have imagined that a few months later a global crisis would lead to an accelerated collapse of cultural institutions in Israel and to a temporary closure of the project. Personally, I found that the increased sense of precariousness accentuates the necessity of considering legacy. By that I do not mean planning how a project can persevere no matter what. If there is no reason or capacity for Gym, it would be better that it cease to exist. My fashionably late answer to the legacy question addresses the project’s impact on the world. It is often difficult to assess the legacy of such a project. It is not for me to determine its impact on the art world. I do hope it will open new possibilities for artmaking that pays attention to both people and objects, and that it will encourage dialogue-based artmaking with a profound and non-compromising agnostic discourse at its centre. I would also like Gym to inspire the emergence of more enriching and welcoming spaces that create culture and create communities. For the young people, Gym is a significant place where they enjoy spending time and which is important to their lives. The project certainly has affected them, but here too, I cannot declare with certainty to which specific aspects of their being it contributes, how much it improves their lives, or whether it does promote their ability to face a racist, violent, and unjust reality. The one undeniable legacy is the relationships created between the project’s various partners. Thanks to Gym, people who were once strangers are now in my life and in my heart. I have had the privilege of seeing children turn into teenagers and young adults. I have enjoyed creating together, working alongside, having fun with, learning from, loving and taking a part in the lives of many people. This is a wonderful legacy, of which I am tremendously proud.

 

[1] Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.

[2] Gym is funded as an art project by the Israeli Centre for Digital Art and its independence is largely made possible thanks to the Centre’s independence.

[3] Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, p. 18. Penguin Random House UK, 2017.

[4] Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. Routledge, 2005.