The Real Life Politics of Palestinian Art in New York

A view of Khaled Jarrar's "No Exist" (2014) at Whitebox Art Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
A view of Khaled Jarrar’s “No Exist” (2014) at Whitebox Art Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last night’s opening of Khaled Jarrar’s two-part exhibition No Exit at Whitebox Art Center and the related 10 Days, 10 Ideas workshops at Undercurrent Projects was a window into the art world realities facing Palestinian artists in the midst of the escalating violence in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.

Visitors in front of Whitebox Art Center on Broome Street during the opening of Khaled Jarrar's "No Exit" (click to enlarge)
Visitors in front of Whitebox Art Center on Broome Street during the opening of Khaled Jarrar’s “No Exit” (click to enlarge)

After the Ramallah-based artist Khaled Jarrar was denied a visa by Israeli authorities to attend his opening at the New Museum — he has work in the major Here and Elsewhere exhibition that opened earlier this month — the programming for his Whitebox and Undercurrent shows was adapted to reflect the artist’s absence. The original show were scheduled to include his  “Gently I Pressed The Trigger” installation and related paintings at Whitebox, while video work would be screened at Undercurrent. The symbolism was not intentional, but the show’s separation into two parts echoes the Palestinian Authority’s own forced division into two unconnected territories — one body, broken apart.

Videos by Jarrar at Whitebox
Videos by Jarrar at Whitebox

Last night at Whitebox was more solemn than most art openings. A new work, “No Exist” (2014), which was created by Jarrar with the help of Igor Molochevski, who also co-produced the Whitebox exhibition, filled most of the nonprofit space on the Lower East Side with the names of Palestinians who have been killed in the recent violence in Gaza and the West Bank. The names and ages, white letters projected in a dark room, are endlessly read by an electronic voice. The impact is sad and otherworldly, like walking into a mausoleum of some future war.

“Khaled had an idea for what he wanted to see and I helped visualize and see what is possible,” Molochevski told Hyperallergic. “One idea was to create a website. But then Khaled, Myriam [Vanneschi, curator], and I, we worked together — me more as a programmer …[Khaled] wanted to show the totality of the tragedy. The numbers, the sheer numbers of people who were dead.”

Al Jazeera's Arabic-language cable news channel was being broadcast in Whitebox Art Center during the "No Exit" opening.
Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language cable news channel was being broadcast in Whitebox Art Center during the “No Exit” opening.

“The way I program is almost like an open ended system,” he said. “The text is being translated into a video feed, but the video feed is actually being fed into a particle transmitter. And why the text is flowing down is basically [because] a bunch of the small weighted particles are basically traveling down at a constant velocity.”

The feed, which is coming from Dropbox, will be updated by friends of the artist who work for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar news outlet, which is keeping a running tab of the deceased. The work’s conceptual reference is to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where the names of the victims are always being read. Molochevski offered Hyperallergic his own interpretation of the piece. “Everyone, Jews, Palestinians are victims of the machine. Israelis are also victims of the machine. It’s the entire society becoming extremely consummated in the consumeristic dream. The corporate dream.” He explained that the result is an installation that remembers individuals but ultimately transforms them into some kind of un-memorizable entity, like statistics.

The crowd was mostly artists and other art world people, but then a slightly unkept older man walked in with a woman and asked to speak to someone who spoke Arabic. I pointed to a friend who grew up in Lebanon. They spoke for a while but soon after they concluded their conversation I asked my friend what he wanted. She explained he was a Jewish-American writer, who came across as very religious and fanatical. “All of this is happening because it’s Biblical,” he told her, before explaining that he wanted to speak to local Arabs to hear what is going on so he could match it to Old Testament text. “He seemed convinced,” she told me.

The second opening the same evening at Undercurrent Projects in the East Village, 10 Days, 10 Ideas, did not take place as scheduled. Owner Katie Peyton told Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya that she did not approve of a line on the event flyer that read, “Undercurrent Projects and An Incubator for Palestine support Direct Action Front for Palestine and NYC Solidarity with Palestine.” She additionally stated that she was not comfortable with the show’s sponsor going anonymous when that had not been the case initially.

Curator Myriam Vanneschi, who has contributed to Hyperallergic, explained that the incubator, or what she also describes as a series of workshops, were created after Jarrar could not physically be there and were conceived of with the artist’s support. She added that the project scheduled to open last night at Undercurrent “needed to address the more urgent situation in the Palestine.”

A view of the interior of Undercurrent Projects for 10 Days, 10 Ideas
A view of the interior of Undercurrent Projects for 10 Days, 10 Ideas

“The workshops, Khaled, and the curators were and are supportive of Direct Action Front for Palestine and NYC Solidarity with Palestine and decided the space was available to them, should the need arise,” Vanneschi said. “It seems to me that Undercurrent Projects didn’t want to, or felt unable to, commit to be the platform where such solidarity was obvious. They said to me they feared that action was taking over from art and they wanted to draw the line there. They are entitled to do that.”

The original schedule for 10 Days, 10 Ideas at Undercurrent Projects (click to enlarge)
The original schedule for 10 Days, 10 Ideas at Undercurrent Projects (click to enlarge)

With controversy brewing over wording, the decision was made to move the discussion down the street to the largely empty The Scratcher bar on East 5th Street.

After the group, which consisted of activists, journalists, artists, and intellectuals convened at the pub, the conversation started with an explanation of what happened, and why the event was taking place in this third venue. Artists and activist Amin Husain was invited to speak and tell Jarrar’s story of being denied exit from the West Bank. Husain included details of his own life, his father’s death partly from the Israel-imposed restrictions on medical services in the West Bank, the realities of Israeli settler colonialism, and how violence permeates the system that has imprisioned millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The group of roughly 22 roundtable participants listened intently to Husain for over 12 minutes until the bartender came over and asked Husain to stop. While the bartender said he was sympathetic to the cause, he explained he would not allow him to continue with his “oratory.” Husain was stunned. The group, already feeling dejected by Undercurrent, fell into a quiet and confused mood.

A view of some of the 10 Day, 10 Ideas participants in Scorcher Bar during the informal gathering.
A view of some of the 10 Day, 10 Ideas participants in Scratcher Bar during the informal gathering, including Amin Husain (left) and curator Myriam Vanneschi (far right)

The 30-something bartender seemed agitated when I approached him to ask why the group wasn’t allowed to continue. I identified myself as a journalist and asked if someone had complained about Husain’s remarks. At first he said someone had indeed, though later he changed his story to say many people had, which seemed odd considering there were roughly 12 other people in the bar.

The group looked visibly defeated, and conversations turned sour as some people grumbled about the fascism of America and how New York had changed.

Today, Peyton of Undercurrent remarked in an email to exhibition organizers how her space, along with Whitebox, could not host “political activist meetings or sponsor political agendas.” While Whitebox is a nonprofit, at the mercy of funding agencies, which certainly creates a level of anxiety for any organization, it isn’t clear how Undercurrent, which is neither a nonprofit nor a commercial gallery, could be impacted by political meetings. The Undercurrent Projects website professes to be a “freethinking art space inspired by the epic myth of the avant garde,” and also clearly states that it provides “advisory services” for collectors.

Tonight, the workshop series curators, including Vanneschi, Molochevski, Rhett Jones, and Joseph Audeh, met to decide what to do going forward. They decided to cancel 10 Days, 10 Ideas.

“Perhaps lines are blurred when art becomes Social Practice becomes action,” Vanneschi said. “But I believe this is where Social Practice becomes truly relevant and I stand with freedom of speech in an art space, especially when initiated by the curators in collaboration with the artist whose work is being shown.”

Yesterday, during his openings, artist Khaled Jarrar was taking part in the massive protests that traveled from Ramallah towards Jerusalem. He was texting and calling with Vanneschi and others during the ordeal. Throughout the day and night reports of Israeli military forces firing live rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas into the protesters in the West Bank were popping up on social media and elsewhere.

Today, Vanneschi posted video footage shot by Jarrar during yesterday’s protests (posted above). The imagery in the short video is intense and volatile. He is so close to the front line of the protest, and you can sense the dangerous position the artist has thrust himself into, on the edge of life and death, between actor and voyeur. Not surprisingly, Jarrar’s work is all about borders and transgression. The boundaries between art and life easily blur in his world, and you can sense why considering the horrific reality he is forced to negotiate daily.

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