Peter Cusack is a field recordist, musician and researcher who has traveled to areas of major environmental devastation, nuclear sites, big landfill dumps, edges of military zones and other potentially dangerous places. He has been to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the Caspian Oil Fields in Azerbaijan; 'London Gateway' the new port on the River Thames where massive dredging severely damages the underwater environment; the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, which is now being partially restored after virtually disappearing due to catastrophic water misuse.
While most of these locations have been extensively discussed in articles and documented in images, we don't know what a day in any of these places sounds like. With his field recordings, however, Cusack gives us an idea of what a radiometer with a cuckoo in the background in Pripyat sounds like. Or what it is like to hear the wind whistling by the Sizewell nuclear power stations. These recording belong to a practice that the artist calls sonic journalism. The discipline is an audio complement and companion to images and language. Using field recordings and careful listening, sonic journalism provides valuable insights into the atmosphere of a particular site.
Hi Peter! The public is now used to seeing images of dangerous places. Focusing on sound recordings from these same places, however, is less banal. What can sound communicate that an image cannot convey?
Field recordings are very good at communicating the atmosphere of places. They also give a good sense of space (distance, position, how things are moving) and timing of any events happening. I think this is important because it gives a sense of what it might be like to actually be there and allows you to think about what you might feel, or how you might react if present. I don't really agree that images are more banal (some recordings are also). It depends on the image. For me a better impression is given when images, sounds and language are working together. Most reportage uses images and language but not the sounds, which means we are usually missing the aural information. This is a pity because it can be very informative and expressive.
Some of the sounds you collected are seducing and fascinating. The ones you recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are particularly charming, even the Cuckoo and radiometer has some poetry in it. So how do you suggest the sense of danger to the listener?
Yes, sometimes they are a complete contrast to a sense of danger. However they are part of the the larger whole. Most dangerous places are very complex. For me it's important to suggest the complexity and the contradictions that are present. That way one gets a more complete picture, e.g it may seem a contradiction that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now a wonderful nature reserve. That is definitely to be contrasted with state of human health there.
Is it easier to get access to these locations as a sound artist than as a photographer? I imagine that people in charge of a military site or a particularly environment-damaging oil field will be wary of a photographer but might underestimate the strength of a sound recording. Do you find that you face the same resistance and restriction when you record ambient sound than when you take photos?
The only place where i had access to a place where photographers cannot not go was the Jaguar car factory in Liverpool, where they are paranoid about industrial espionage from rival car manufacturers. At Chernobyl they give anyone access if you can pay the entry fees.
In places where you don't get permission it depends on how obvious you are. Large microphones are as visible as large cameras. I often use small equipment which is not easy to see. However, it's true that security guards don't know about recording equipment compared to cameras.
The UK now is very security conscious. I've been stopped at places for recording and for just standing in the wrong place not recording or photographing.
The first recordings of the series dedicated to the oil industry were made in 2004 at the Bibi Heybat oil field, in Azerbaijan. Why did you start there? Was it a conscious decision to start in that location or did you find yourself there for another reason and the idea emerged then to start a new body of work?
i was in Azerbaijan for a holiday. i did not know the oil fields were there, so it was a very lucky accident from which the project grew.
You see Sounds from Dangerous Places as a form of 'Sonic Journalism'. Yet, you are a sound artist, so what makes your work an artwork rather than merely a 'sound reportage'?
My interest is to document places as best i can (audio recording, photography plus any other kind of material or research) so that anyone listening/reading can get an idea of the place itself and the relevant issues. this material gets used for a variety of purposes - sound art, cds, radio, education, talks, installations. whether it is art, documentary or journalism is not so important to me.
Are there dangerous places you wish you could go to or sounds you wish you could capture, only they are out of reach for some reason?
Yes, many. most military areas are completely impossible to get into. So are a lots of industrial sites, nuclear power stations, etc. Sometimes official tours are organised but usually these are useless for recording, which takes time to do properly without other people talking or getting in the way all the time. However it's sometimes possible to make interesting and valuable recordings from outside the fences.
Other places are really, and personally, dangerous like war zones. My project concentrates on environmentally dangerous place. War zones are not part of this and i've no wish to get killed.
After this exploration of the energy industry, you are planning to explore global water issues. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? Your website states that the work will include the dam projects in Turkey. Why do these dams strike you as representative of the global water problems? Where else will the project take you?
The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. the aral sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. today it has almost dried up because the water flowing into it is diverted into major irrigation schemes far up stream. The disappearance of the sea has been disastrous for the local climate and huge fishing industry that once supplied the Soviet Union with 25% of its fresh water fish.
The Kazakhs are now trying to restore a small part of the sea with support from the world bank. This has been quite successful and the fishing industry has re-started bring the economy back to some of the fishing villages. the wildlife has returned and so has the climate. I have travelled there twice so far - very interesting.
Last weekend was the Goldsmiths degree show at the Truman Brewery in London. There were quite a few interesting projects but the one that really stood out for its depth, coherence and reach is Tearlach Byford-Flockhart's The Social Mining Union (SUM.)
The BA Design project aims to reposition the role of the 'labour union' (and function of positive activism) within a globalized landscape of post-consumer society, examining the industrial mining industry and peripheral territories it is associated with.
Tearlach's adventures took him from scrapyard in south London to Glencore Xstrata's Annual General Meeting in Switzerland.
Metal scrapping, i learnt from my conversation with the designer is a a multi-million pound business. A documentary on Channel 4 revealed that the business of a yard owner in south London can turn over £7million a year while "scrappers", the men who scour the streets in the hope of turning trash into cash, can make up to £800 a day.
Trailer for documentary 'Getting Rich In The Recession - Scrappers'
Tearlach joined the scrappers and collected discarded objects from all over New Cross, a district in the London Borough of Lewisham. He also 'mined' websites like Gumtree and freecycle for discarded computers. He then sold his scrap in scrapyards and used the money to buy Glencore (a multinational commodity trading and mining company) shares. Being a shareholder, he somehow managed to infiltrate the annual general meeting of Glencore Xstrata last May when he took the opportunity of a Q&A session to suggest more positive economic, social and environmental impacts in the mining industry. His intervention might not have had much effect but imagine what would happen if whole communities of scrappers engaged in similar forms of activism!
The Social Mining Union project looks back at the Industrial Revolution when large-scale industries were centred around people and place. The paternalism of companies such as Cadbury's and Unilever ensured that communities flourished around places of work, sharing a common ground and an inherent sense of place. This affiliation between workers, industry and environment strengthened social and cultural values and cultivated prosperity at an individual level, and consequently this had a positive effect on the commercial output. The picture is obviously quite different in today's global context.
Extracts from my conversation with the designer:
Hi Tee! I'm very interested in your experience in scrapyards. Could you detail where you collected the scrap and how you turned it into money that you then used to buy some Glencore shares?
I collected old radiators, piping, cans which were often left in skips and on the side of the road. I then visited two different scrap yards - Sydenham scrap metals and Lewisham scrap metals ltd. When you arrive you weigh your van load for the cheaper scrap - iron and steel etc and then for the more valuable scrap such as copper you weigh it separately on smaller scales. Once the van has been weighed you then remove all the scrap and weigh it again working out how much scrap you had.
You then get payed by check, which I put strait into a bank account set up for the union - this then gets transferred into my Barclays stockbroker account where you can by any public companies shares, once bought you can request a proxy from to attend shareholders meetings and other events.
By the way, why did you chose Glencore rather than any other mining company? Any particular reason?
Glencore is the largest commodities and mining giant, from my research I was interested in the anonymity and secrecy they only recently become a public company so not many people know about their operations. I felt it was important to show some transparency and realised that whilst investigating them they were incredibly corrupt in a variety of ways.
One of the goals of your project is to question the role of the union and of activism nowadays. What is wrong with the way they function now?
Activism it seems still predominately relies on models such as protesting, embarrassment and sometimes aggression, these are important but outdated, as policing and government legislation has changed and evolved. The Battle of Orgreave is one of the signifiers to how policing was evolving to deal with large crowds with new techniques being used to control the people.
Unions have lost the strength they once held. Although in the past they did at times act like bullies, they have lost the sense of community connections and this is due to the combinations of small unions into larger ones. They are also stuck in a mentality that suits the past in terms of how they deal with gaining better paid employees based upon a time when striking had more of an impact.
During our conversation, you mentioned the industrial paternalism policy of Cadbury's and Unilever which 'facilitated social capital at a domestic level.' If i understood your project correctly, workers and unions would have to take matters into their own hands and recreate this social capital, instead of relying on corporate mining industries? Can you walk us through what you did once you owned some Glencore actions? And what you think could happen if other people did like you and the whole action was scaled up?
Once I bought the shares I was able to begin a dialogue with Glencore via emails, this enabled me to assess what was possible at the meeting I was planning to attend.
What I found from the meeting is that if we are to make a change within this centralised forum we need to one take matters into our own hands as management seem little concerned and two to speak through a collective voice, if we imagine The Social Mining Union with 1 million members each of these members holds a small amount of shares but collectively they hold a massive amount of shares then we collectively are a threat, as our voice is much louder than one. But I also think it is important to remember that this project is about access and navigation The Social Mining Union suggests a new way to engage with these global companies at a human level.
Thanks Tee Byford!
The Graphic Design Festival Breda, that event which explores current developments in the field of graphic visual culture and turned me into a super fan of everything graphic overnight is over but one of the exhibitions part of the festival is up until the end of next month at MOTI - the Museum Of The Image in Breda. And it's a good thing because that little show is really good.
Resolute - Design Changes shows the work of graphic designers who aren't afraid to come to grip with burning social and political issues.
Their work goes beyond protest. The designers make us confront problems we'd rather not think about, they turn complex issues into clear and limpid visual communication, and some of them even craft tools that can be used for immediate action.
Resolute - design changes explores the current state of social responsibility taken up by designers. In vigorous projects these firm designers are determined to contribute to the process of change in society and their profession. Based on moderation, inspiration and engagement they encourage people to shape their opinions and stimulate them to take action.
The show was curated by Sven Ehmann and Dennis Elbers. I don't know which blogs and magazines these two eat for breakfast but i'd better find out and subscribe to them because it looks like i've been living under a stone over the past few years. All the games, posters, publications, projects and campaigns selected were strong and many of them were entirely new to me.
Quick overview some of the most striking ones:
Since 2011, Kenji Nakayama has been hand-painting signs for some of Boston's homeless population. The hastily written slogans that homeless people hold in the hope to get passersby attention go from beige brown bits of cardboard to colourful design pieces.
The Occupied Times of London is a political newspaper founded in October 2011 during the first week of the occupation of St Paul's.
Free, non-profit and devoid of any advertising, the publication is dedicated to highlighting perceived problems with current global socio-economic practices: "Neoliberalism is bleeding society dry, feeding upon the worst instincts of human nature and destroying the best - the qualities of solidarity, altruism, interrelationship with nature, meaningful work, and respectful coexistence within our families and communities."
Tzortzis Rallis told Dazed & Confused "We use a typeface called Bastard designed by Jonathan Barnbrook. It's reminiscent of the typefaces used by banks and companies during fascist times. He wanted to create a typeface that no one in the corporate sector would use to advertise."
Papers, Please is a video game focusing on the emotional toll of working as an immigration officer, deciding who to let in and who to exclude from entering the fictional dystopian socialist state of Arstotzka.
The player earns money based on how many people have been processed and bribes collected. Money is taken out of the inspector's salary if they let terrorists, wanted criminals, or smugglers enter the country. Any money earned has to be invested in paying for rent, food, heat, and other necessities in low-class housing for themselves and their family. As relations between Arstotzka and nearby countries deteriorate, sometimes due to terrorist attacks, new sets of rules are gradually added, such as denying citizens of specific countries or demanding current documentation from citizens. The player may be challenged with moral dilemmas as the game progresses; such as allowing the supposed spouse of an immigrant through despite lacking complete papers, at the risk of accepting a terrorist into the country. (via)
Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide is a birdwatching-style poster designed to help you spot and identify drones. Silhouettes of the most commonly used drones are presented along with information about their country of origin and purpose: to spy or to kill. On the back of the poster, the guide details survival tips for spotting, hiding from, and interfering with the sensors of drones.
The poster was printed on a mirrored surface and could, in theory, confuse a drone's camera and be brandished as an anti-drone protection.
The Center for Urban Pedagogy collaborates with teachers and students, policy experts and community advocates, and artists and designers to turn complex urban-planning processes and policy-making decisions into engaging and visually appealing brochures. CUP's aim is to provide practical advice to groups who lack access to such information: immigrants, public-housing residents, and at-risk youth, to name a few.
November 2012, The Israelian - Palestinian conflict erupts in an outburst of violence. This time not only in real life, but also on Social Media, where both parties use propaganda to conquer the hearts and minds.
The Social Media War is boardgame designed to give a visual, analog presence to a conflict fought in virtual space. Players can use propaganda to conquer and defend territories and thus win the digital war over the Gaza Strip.
I didn't get a chance to attend the whole festival but hey, hurray, the organizers uploaded on flickr fantastic sets of images that document the event:
More photos on GDFB flickr page.
Now that I'm back from a series of trips, i might finally be able to catch up on the many conferences, festivals and exhibitions i've attended over the past few weeks. Starting with Piratbyrån and Friends, an exhibition at Furtherfield that presents screenings, installations and artworks by founding and more recent members of Piratbyrån (The Bureau for Piracy), keen to tell the story of the group on their own terms.
Piratbyrån was created in 2003 to support the free sharing of information, culture, and question intellectual property. In clear contrast with the 'values' of Antipiratbyrån, Hollywood's lobby group in Sweden. Until i saw this exhibition, i didn't realize how much contemporary culture owes to the trailblazing thinking and acting of Piratbyrån. Piratbyran is often reduced to file-sharing and The Pirate Bay. In reality, the group looked more broadly at the potential of copying in technical, artistic and philosophical contexts. As Geraldine Juarez wrote me "I don't know how whisteblowing would work today without someone knowing that you can copy files in a USB and send it to journalists. Leaking is fundamentaly file-sharing. Leaking an album or secret documents go through the same process of *copying*. And as the exhibition efficiently demonstrates, Piratbyrån is also about more egalitarian models of networked culture, about collaboration, about not being an artist but using art as a strategy to spread values.
In 2007 - after having kickstarted the Swedish debate over file-sharing, which by the time had become a major issue in the previous years national election and after having created The Pirate Bay as a side-project that became the world largest file-sharing system - the people from Piratbyrån had grown tired of the file-sharing debate and its endless repetitions of for-or-against, legal-or-illegal, payment-or-gratis. At the last day of April in a Walpurgis fire on the top of the highest mountain in Stockholm the masked members burned the remaining copies of a book on file-sharing they had published some years earlier and declared the debate dead. The video documentation of this ritual, set to the soundtrack of KLF's What Time is Love, found its way to the Indian Raqs Media Collective group who was just about to curate the next Manifesta biennial in Bolzano, Italy.
Piratbyrån closed in 2009 and the Furtherfield show tells the story of this group of friends through videos, a timeline, archive material and newly commissioned work by artists Geraldine Juarez and Evan Roth.
Quick and partial walk-though:
Appropriated police riot shields:
The seven open wireless routers of Evan Roth's Kopimi Totem are arranged in the iconic Kopimi pyramid. Visitors can connect to each of the routers and download archival media (text, images, video, etc) from the 10 year history of the Piratbyrån organization. Visitors can also upload their own files, thus contributing to the harmony of the data life cycle of copy (yin) and paste (yang).
From the dotcom bubble to the Embassy of Piracy at the Venice Biennale. Magnus Eriksson showed us snippets from the Piratbyrån archives.
Exhibition trailer: Piracy as Friendship @Furtherfield
More photos at Furtherfield and Paul Ros.
Flone is a drone (an unmanned aerial vehicle) which uses a smartphone as a flight controller and explores novel ways to "occupy" public space, in particular the air and claim the right to use it before legislation makes it illegal.
Created by artist and computer engineer Lot Amorós, technical engineer Cristina Navarro, and industrial engineer Alexandre Oliver, Flone turns the mobile phone into a stand-alone flying apparatus which can go up to a height of 20 metres from the ground, come down, rotate and do the usual smartphone tasks, such as taking photographs or video recordings. It can also be remotely controlled by another smartphone with a wifi or 3G connection.
Its objective is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform, providing a range of applications for them to operate with a smartphone alone. The combination of its different sensors and telematic connections transform Flone into a multimedia drone, a mobile communication unit that moves around in a new space: the public air.
I briefly interviewed the creators of Flone:
One of the objectives of Flone "is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform." So i was wondering if there's any particular legislation about air space (at least in Spain) and if anyone is free to have all kinds of devices fly anywhere into the air to record, photograph, sense, etc.
Flying 300 meters above the ground or close to airports generally requires a permission from the Spanish Aerial Authority (AENA). However, there are no national laws regarding the use of aerial space below 300 meters. In Spain, these laws depends on local governments and currently almost none of them has any law on that regard simply because no one before had ever used space to fly drones or anything of the kind.
We spent a long time asking lawyers and drone pilots about this legal gap but nobody has the right answers. There are many variables to take into consideration: whether you're flying over private or public land, taking images or not, for commercial purposes or not... Anyway, even if we do everything legally, we live in Españistán, a country where politicians and policemen don't respect the law in any sense and where they can punish people without any reason.
In the United States the airspace for private drones will be regulated in 2015. In Europe a common law is coming, but until this date the air is a no man's land.
One year ago, in the exhibition of GuerrillaDrone in the Netherlands I showed the stupid duty process for taking aerial images.
Right now the law is changing, but one year ago The Netherlands had a very restrictive law dating back to the Cold War, I still have a copy of the law that explicitly says that if anybody publishes an aerial image of The Netherlands without the explicit permission of the Ministry of Defense they will be punished with some months in jail.
How far are you in the development of Flone? Do you still have much to achieve?
Flone can have a lot of capabilities and flying modes. So far we have developed the physical platform, and right now we are developing the software interface, we are focused on the pilot experience, designing a more natural way to interact with a flying machine.
We have already developed a Android app for flying flone without the traditional RadioControl equipment.
What can Flone do so far?
Transform the airspace into an accessible public air.
How are you planning to use the flying smartphones personally? And did you meet with beta testers, members of the public who suggested surprising ways to use Flone?
Each new idea of using flone (or any other drone) is a surprising one, and is also probably totally unprecedented. Anyway we prefer the idea of flone as a shared vehicle instead of a personal one. Private cars have changed the way public space is designed and used. We prefer an ecopolítical idea of a public network of flying devices.
Until now we have already built some airframes for different people, a lot of people contact us asking for information but becoming a drone pilot and becoming beta tester taks time. Next month we will do a drone hackademy in Barcelona and we plan to build 20 flones. With the stable release of the app we expect that a lot of people will get involved.
Did you meet unexpected challenges during the development of the projects? Things that didn't go according to plan, that were more difficult to implement than you thought or that surprised you?
Dealing with time in the milliseconds scale. Motors update their velocity 400 times each second. Debugging this kind of fast robotics requires a lot of experience. It's not about finding the best solution, it's about finding the equilibrium between the fastest and the best.
I have a question just for Lot who worked on Guerrilla Drone: is Flone another form of GD? Maybe one that looks less threatening and that is lighter?
Yes, but was not a direct transformation. The main element of Guerrilla Drone is their microprojector that has the same size of a smartphone. Flone is a kind of democratic version of Guerrilla Drone in the sense of making the technology accessible, but has a different concept.
What's next for Flone?
A webpage with real time flyings of users around the world, smartphone-based glasses for piloting flone by First Person View, autonomous flight plans, gimbal-mirror for video stabilization, improving the failsafe SMS-ing of the position if the flone gets lost, multiple connection with 3G & Wifi, an automatic path calculation for flying swarms... and a parachute.
This are some future developments, but right now, the next for us is: Use it!
We spent the last six months of our lives developing it, so right now the main motivation is exploring the airspace for ourselves.
Thanks Lot, Cristina and Alexandre!
Flone was the winning project of Next Things 2013 - Next Space, the Second Global Art and Technology Challenge, the joint call for ideas by Telefónica I+D, the research, development and innovation company of the Telefónica Group, and LABoral.
Tomorrow FACT in Liverpool is opening Science Fiction: New Death, an exhibition which explores how advances in technology are making everyday lives feel increasingly similar to universes so far heralded by science-fiction.
One of the works in the show is a spectacularly seducing short film by Larissa Sansour. Nation Estate proposes a vertical solution to Palestinian statehood. Instead of navigating their currently heavily fragmented and controlled territory through dispiriting screening processes and check points, Palestinians living in an undetermined future would be housed inside a colossal high-tech skyscraper. Each city (Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, etc.) would have its own floor. The building is surrounded by concrete walls but its inhabitants would be able to travel in and out of their country using a highly efficient subway system and go from one Palestinian city to another using an elevator.
Nation Estate (clip)
As i wrote above, the images in the film are very seducing. Their sleek aesthetics is full of irony and humour but the dystopian scenario also alludes to the absurdity and complexity of every day life for Palestinians.
Conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations in 2011, the work comments on the shrinking territory of the Palestinian state and the difficulty for its inhabitant to move from one city to another. In 2011, the work was nominated for a prized sponsored by Lacoste at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne. The nomination was then revoked as the sponsor found that the work was "too pro-Palestinian." Furthermore, Sansour was asked her to sign an agreement saying that she had chosen to withdraw herself from the competition.
The censorship attracted the attention of the press and the museum eventually took the decision to side with the artist, breaking off their relationship with Lacoste.
What makes Nation Estate so powerful is that you can very well imagine that the whole Palestinian population might one day be confined to a sole high-rise building. And what makes Nation Estate even more powerful is that you can just well imagine that they won't even be allowed to do that. At least, not on what is left of their own land.
Born in Jerusalem, Larissa Sansour studied Fine Art in Copenhagen, London, New York. Her work is interdisciplinary, immersed in the current political dialogue and utilises video, photography, installation, the book form and the internet. I'm thrilled that she accepted to answer my questions about her work:
Hi Larissa! Why did you decide to give Nation Estate a sci-fi, futuristic treatment? What does sci-fi and a dystopic approach bring to your work that a setting in a realistic present wouldn't allow?
I feel that Palestinians are currently living through a stretch of post apocalyptic history. Politics on the ground is so surreal, that it is sometimes hard to comment on what is going on there in just a straight forward way. Sci-fi often predicts humanity's future and future concerns. The world that sci-fi films and literature usually build, reflects our unease with progress and technology and its clash with organic matter in the world. In the same way, I think Palestine has been undergoing a very harsh and fast shift in their reality under the rational modernist Construct of the Israeli State and all of the calamities that that entailed for Palestinians. As the international community is still struggling to reinforce the law on the expanding Israeli settlements and other violations of human rights by the state of Israel, the Palestinian people have been pushed to living under subhuman and often very surreal conditions. It only feels appropriate to reflect that reality in a visual language that matches that other worldliness lived by Palestinians.
I saw an extract of Nation Estate a few weeks ago during a talk you gave at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. I was particularly interested in the transport system the film portrayed. Could you explain how the subway and elevators work? And why you have people move underground or vertically?
Nation Estate posits and imagines a Palestinian state in the future. As it becoming harder and harder to understand what a viable Palestinian state would look like, seeing that Israeli settlements are slowly eating away at what is left of Palestinian territory, the film suggests that the only way we can imagine a feasible Palestine is in vertical form rather than horizontal, due to there being no more land left for Palestinians. Nation Estate is a highly futuristic technically advanced skyscraper that houses the entire Palestinian population. Each floor represents a different Palestinian town, Ramallah on the 3rd floor, Jenin on the 5th, Jerusalem on the 7th, Bethlehem on the 21st and so on. So, trips between towns that at present are very hard to make due to Israeli checkpoints would become so easy, as they are made by way of an elevator. The building also features a great development for Palestinians and that is the ease of movement between Jordan and Nation Estate.
Palestinians are currently not allowed to use the Israeli airport, which would make trips from and to the outside world easier. Instead all Palestinians have to enter Palestine through Jordan which makes it a much longer journey. In Nation Estate, a new line between Amman and Palestine is constructed, the Amman express underground, which only takes 15 min.
During that same presentation you also mentioned the fact that, as a Palestinian artist, you had to deal a lot with attention fatigue. Could you expand on this?
I think the world has grown weary to news footage that is coming out of the Middle East and especially to news coming out of Israel and Palestine. The problem at hand is more than 60 years old and it is most often than not represented as a conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, people get the impression that it is a conflict between two equal powers that just can't get along and the reasons are most often ascribed to religion, whereas in reality what is happening in Palestine is another form of colonialism. Not coming to terms with that unfortunately only feeds the desperation for any solution to be found and continues the cycle of blaming the two sides, while the stronger side keeps getting stronger and the tragedy just keeps getting worse. And I think audiences from outside of Palestine have grown immune to any information coming out of that region as all the news seems repetitive and the situation at hand seems to be futile and beyond help.
I would also expect that, once again as a Palestinian artist, you meet with politically-motivated pressure. The Lacoste sponsorship is the obvious example but could you give more examples of this sort of censorship?
What was disturbing about the Lacoste sponsorship is how blatant the censorship was. I was basically told, we decided to remove your name from the 8 nominees list. Also, what made it even more sinister is that I was asked the next day, to sign a paper saying that I left the competition according to my own personal decision to seek other opportunities. It is was very clear that Lacoste did not think that an artist has any power to battle such a giant fashion company like themselves. Fortunately, things did not go according to their plan.
But I did experience other forms of censorship. I guess one cannot call them censorship as such as it is more subtle than that. But many Palestinian artists are just simply not selected, or subjected to systematic silencing. Several times, I was asked to change the titles of my shows because they sounded too problematic, politically speaking. Several years ago, a group show I was in in the US, nearly closed down before opening night, simply because it featured too many Palestinian artists. The show was finally allowed to open on the condition that the catalogues that accompanied the show were not made public. So, these various forms of silencing unfortunately happen often.
How do Palestinian people react to this vision of the future nation that your film gives?
I am happy that Palestinians usually respond really well to my work. I think Palestinians can identify quickly with the surreal and dystopic elements in my films since we all had to deal with the surreal and absurd realities that the Israeli occupation has imposed on us.
A Space Exodus
I also saw Palestinauts at Cornerhouse in Manchester two years ago. It was part of an exhibition called Subversion in the Arab Art world. Both Nation Estate and Palestinauts are set in the future and what strikes me is that neither of the work contain any direct reference to Isreal. Why is Israel absent from the films?
Even though Israel is never mentioned directly, it is completely present in its absence. These apocalyptic conditions that are imposed on the Palestinian people, whether in the form of outer space or architectural displacement, are all a direct result of the Israeli occupation. And since that is very obvious, I would only be resorting to direct documentary style form if I am to reiterate that. I think having Israel absent reinforces the fact that the films are projected. They function as parallel universes, rather than solutions. They address our concerns as a humanity in general, a universal angst for the future.
What do you think can be the impact of art on political issues? Which place does it have in a political dialogue? Whether we are talking about Palestine or other political issues.
It is always difficult for an artist, I think, to find a balance between the two, politics and art. I often find it uncomfortable to be put in the position of a political spokesperson devoid from the artistic context. The mere fact that my artistic work is immersed in politics should not mean that I have to resort to the same political discourse outside of art. There is a potency to art that should be preserved as unique and its impact on the political dialogue cannot be underestimated. That is why it is a difficult act for me to juggle all these positions.
Nation Estate, for example, does not propose any course of action, nor does it in any simple terms suggest any kind of right or just solution to the problems at hand. It merely responds to a completely unacceptable state of affairs and attempts to take one possible surreal, absurd and radical set of consequences of accepting the status quo.
What is next for you? What are you working on?
The project that I am working on now, is a performative counter-measure to the unearthing of artifacts in order to justify further confiscation of Palestinian lands and erasure of Palestinian heritage. In the absence of any real peace process, archeology has become the latest battleground for settling land disputes. Unearthed history is used as arguments for rightful ownership of the land today. In this project, 2-300 pieces of elaborate porcelain - suggested to belong to a future nation of hi-tech, highly sophisticated, yet entirely fictional Palestinians - are buried deep into the ground in the West Bank, for future archeologists to excavate. Once unearthed possibly hundreds of years from now, this tableware will provide physical evidence supporting the myth of the historical hi-tech people, thus justifying future Palestinian claims to their land.
The project stretches the very idea of fiction beyond its natural boundaries by not just fabricating a myth of a future hi-tech nation, but rather physically constructing evidence for this myth as informed by real events, hence providing the tools for the myth to present itself essentially as a non-fiction. The work itself becomes a historical and narrative intervention - de facto creating a nation.