“The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” by Michael Rakowitz in London’s Trafalgar Square Tony Hisgett / Flickr

When news that Michael Rakowitz withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial was published by the New York Times on February 25, people wondered why the Iraqi-American artist decided to sit out the biannual art event.

Later, in April, when the Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opened at the Jewish Museum, many people noticed that Rakowitz’s work about the renowned Canadian crooner’s relationship with Zionism and Israel — which appeared in the original exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal — wasn’t there. Why?

Rakowitz talks to me about the controversies with both exhibitions and his thoughts on museums and power. He also reads his 2015 letter to Leonard Cohen, which he mailed to the singer a year before the legend died.

And, as a special treat, the music in this podcast is performed by Rakowitz himself.

This and more in our current episode of our weekly Art Movements podcast.

Subscribe to Hyperallergic’s podcast, Art Movements, on iTunes or anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

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A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Rakowitz: I think that the impossible has been something that I’ve always tried to interrogate in my work. And, you know, this was something that Judith Butler said very beautifully when she visited Occupy Wall Street in 2011. And she was, you know, talking about all the different ways in which people were saying that, you know, with what’s being asked for is impossible because nobody knows what they’re asking for. And of course we know what they’re asking for. They’re asking for everything that intersects with everything that is going to unsettle the status quo. And so, you know, her response was like, if, if wanting this or that is impossible, then we demand the impossible. And [it was] like a poem, like the way that she recited it. And I think that demanding the impossible is something that I’m … I kind of feel an unapologetic, you know, kind of draw towards. [And] I think in my works, what I’ve tried to do is to set up those prototypical situations where it can make that seemingly impossible thing happen as an artwork.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s the voice of Michael Rakowitz, the conceptual artist best known for his work that explores the fissures and contours of identity, politics, and culture. One of his best-known projects from 2011 took place at the Park Avenue Autumn restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he served venison a top Iraqi date syrup and tahini on — wait for it — plates looted from Sadam Hussein’s palaces. For another project called Enemy Kitchen, he worked with his Iraqi Jewish mother to compile Baghdadi recipes that he taught to various audiences, including middle and high school students. Begun in 2003, as US forces were leading the illegal invasion of Iraq, the artists wanted to make visible Iraqi culture in a country where it was all but invisible. But recently, he’s been making waves of another kind. Last December, he withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial after it became known that the vice chair of the museum’s board, Warren B. Kanders, was the owner of Safariland, a tear gas manufacturer whose products have been used everywhere from Standing Rock, Ferguson, the US-Mexico border, Gaza, and elsewhere.

I invited him to our studio in Brooklyn to talk about this and another curious project that’s embroiled in another controversy. This one deals with Leonard Cohen. Created for a major museum show in Montreal with the singer’s blessing, by the way, he was forced to withdraw the work he created from the touring exhibition devoted to the Canadian singer. When Leonard Cohen: A Crack In Everything, which is the name of the exhibition, opened at New York’s Jewish museum on April 12, Rakowitz’s work wasn’t there. So we’re gonna hear the story from the artist himself. But first, I asked him to describe his work for those who may not be so familiar with what he does.

Michael Rakowitz: Well, I would describe my work in terms of a formal language of being site-specific more than I would talk about it being something, like, social or a term that I hate, social practice. And I’ve always really liked working in contexts also where there’s a bit of an evaporation in terms of the ine between this laboratory in which the work gets shown, vis-a-vis a museum or a gallery, and how it enters into real life. So I always talk about my work in the frame of things that can yield things like mark-making and drawing and drafting and sculpture, but also about the construction of encounters and events, and also working with enzymes that shape proteins in a different way, you know, vis-a-vis the culinary. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Wow. Okay. [laughs] 

Michael Rakowitz: But I mean, you know, it’s …

Hrag Vartanian: It’s not really an elevator pitch, is it? 

Michael Rakowitz: No, it’s not, but I would say that I’m a sculptor, but I also think that it’s more important for me to do something to kind of disturb or complicate this language about what it is we do or what I do, I should say, you know, because there is just such a desire for everything to be professionalized. And I think that things are a lot messier than that. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, it’s interesting when you use the word “we” because I think your projects also have a communal aspect to them. 

Michael Rakowitz: They do. 

Hrag Vartanian: They feel very communal. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: So that’s something you cultivate in your work, it feels like.

Michael Rakowitz: It’s very much a part of the work. And I think it came a lot from working with people like Dennis Adams and Krzysztof Wodiczko at MIT. And Dennis has this very beautiful thing that he says about his work, about it being a kind of a public art that enlists the viewer[s] as vital collaborators in the construction of meaning. And so, you know, that can be more passive in some works, you know, say from like the 1970s and ’80s, but I think it evolved for me, and the generation certainly that’s come next, you know, which has really amplified the essential component of it being something where there’s a dispersal of the space in which the artwork exists and also something that makes authorship a lot murkier.

Hrag Vartanian: Mhm. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know? So I find that I get a lot from work that is able to be shifted through the different angles through which viewership happens, but also what people can bring to a project, you know? So for instance, the project in Philadelphia that was about the Iraqi broadcaster who ends up losing his voice and then passes away, the way in which there was … a kind of beautiful community that grew out of that to replace him. 

Hrag Vartanian: What’s the title of that work? 

Michael Rakowitz: Radio Silence.

Hrag Vartanian: Radio Silence.

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. I mean, that’s a project that can’t exist, you know, without the other voices. And that’s what makes it rich. 

Hrag Vartanian: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, the Whitney Biennial. 

Michael Rakowitz: Small room! 

Hrag Vartanian: It’s a small room, big elephant! The Whitney Biennial. And I don’t mean just your, but I think a lot of people are sort of waiting. Because there feels like this … I mean, periodically the Whitney Biennial has these kinds of moments where they become like flashpoints of our culture. How they encapsulate that I don’t know in an institution, but it ends up becoming that. In your case, it was reported that you withdrew from the Whitney Biennial before. And is that correct? Tell me the full story of … what’s up with the Whitney Biennial? 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, the full story was that, you know, I was honored to be included by the two curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. And so we were about two months into our discussions about what I might end up doing. And then this very brave letter that was written by the Whitney staff responding to the appearance of Safariland tear gas canisters that was used against the asylum seekers at the border went live [on] Hyperallergic. And I was very moved and very proud to see Rujeko’s name there, to see Chrissie Iles. But also, Amin Husain says this a lot more beautifully and eloquently than I do, but you know, it was like this miracle of interdepartmental alliance and solidarity in the way that that letter was signed, that there wasn’t a hierarchy and it was, you know, all through the museum. 

Hrag Vartanian: And when you said Husain do you mean Amin Husain?

Michael Rakowitz: Amin Husain, yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Part of the Decolonize This Place. 

Michael Rakowitz: Decolonize This Place. Exactly. And I think that that’s a really important moment to behold and to sit with and to appreciate. And, you know, I’ve talked about it to people that what sets the terms for a lot of this is the brave work of people like Haans Haacke in 1971 with Shapolsky et al, you know. But all of a sudden, you know, here’s a situation where it’s not an artwork, it’s art workers. And that kind of evolution of going from institutional critique to something else was very moving for me. And I was in touch with Rujeko and with Jane to more or less say that I was going to be following this closely, and did they feel that there was anything that we as artists could do to stand in solidarity and to help apply the useful pressure that might need to be applied to make a change. And then of course, all of this seemed to have fallen on deaf ears when the very polite but woefully inadequate response was written by the director of the museum, Adam Weinberg. And so, it was at that point where I realized that I was going to have to make a decision for myself about whether or not this was something where I’m just going to find myself in a scenario where so many of these art exhibitions are just … I don’t know, they’re spinning wheels and not going anywhere. And I was worried about whatever way that I could justify participating being something that would just be appropriated by the museum and would make the museum look like it could handle any criticism that was levied at it. And so, I think a lot has changed since 1971 when Hans did that piece and everything is adjusted and the museum makes a very good … It does a very good job of turning those kinds of responses into product. So I … 

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh. That’s a good way of saying it. 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, I don’t mean to sound glib about it or to say that it’s … 

Hrag Vartanian: I don’t think you’re being glib at all. I mean, I just, I understand because I think we’re all feeling kind of like … because I think when you use that term, it sort of represents the machine of the institution sometimes that sort of turns whatever you put into it into something, right. It’s kind of the nature of the institution. It’s not personal. It’s sort of the way it functions. 

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Michael Rakowitz: And to sort of paint the picture for people listening and for you, I found myself in a situation where I’d signed a nondisclosure agreement. The Whitney doesn’t tell you who the other artists are in the Biennial. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: It’s not uncommon that there’s that kind of embargo. What ends up happening later makes me realize why they do it. So it wasn’t like I had artists that I could reach out to, to ask what they were going to do. And in the end, I remembered the tear gas canisters that I saw at Dar Jasser, Emily Jacir and Annemarie Jacir’s residency in Bethlehem. And this beautiful house that their ancestors built is right there at the border wall. And it’s where the Shabaab, you know, have their demonstrations against the Israeli army. And it’s where those tear gas canisters end up in the garden. So instead of picking flowers, they’re gathering the tear gas canisters, and these things for me are a very physical and visual symbol of bodies that are being evacuated from the world, either through death or through displacement. And there was no way for me to reconcile anything. And I’m a sculptor and I’m visual. And so for me, this was a material evidence of the way in which there’s a not-so-invisible line that connects that museum that’s here in New York to spaces like the border wall and in Palestine and in Istanbul and in Kurdistan and everywhere, right? 

Hrag Vartanian: The US-Mexico border. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Michael Rakowitz: And so when I was at MIT a few years ago, there was a scientist who told me that in science, when you want to know how a system works, you introduce a coloring agent. And so the gas was this incredible agent that made very visible and very, very clear the way in which the power structures had been redrawn or, for me, maybe it was just illustrated in sharp resolution for the first time.

Hrag Vartanian: I just had a visceral response to that because it was really like when you say coloring agent, it really does make something visible. 

Michael Rakowitz: It does. 

Hrag Vartanian: You know? In sort of like, and it’s ironic, of course, being tear gas, which is sort of this amorphous sort of substance, but it has its own sort of connections and lines that we [see]. So one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue is, you know, Adam Weinberg’s letter, you mentioned it, but one of the things that occurred to me was how everyone I was talking to seemed, like, “really, that was the letter?” 

Michael Rakowitz: I know. 

Hrag Vartanian: And it was like, who is that letter for? And did those people think it was adequate? Any thoughts on that?

Michael Rakowitz: Who are those people?

Hrag Vartanian: I don’t know, I don’t know. I have no idea because I don’t know anybody who thought, “Oh, that’s a great letter. That answered all my concerns.” I haven’t heard anybody say that. So I kind of wonder, is it like this sort of parallel universe we’re living in sometimes in the art community?

Michael Rakowitz: I think it’s possible that we are living in many different parallel universes [in] our field, you know? But I think that there’s a degree to which I think people who know Adam and the kind of person that he is and the degree of support that he’s shown in the past don’t necessarily want to give him a pass on this, but also understand that he’s probably in what feels like an impossible situation.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And I spoke to one of my mentors in the field of public art about this when I sought counsel on what to do. And he was very, very, you know … careful in saying that he’s not an unsavory person, you know, and he’s probably sympathetic to the letter that I’ve written for instance and what the staff wrote. But it’s a horrendous situation that, you know, is not just a US problem. It’s not just about museum boards. It’s about, you know, things like the philanthropy that ends up building a wing at the National Gallery in London or some other place, whether it’s the Sacklers or the Koch family, you know, like, these kinds of things. I have been visible for a while, and there’s no reason why we need to accept [the] status quo. My point is that Adam Weinberg has to know that most artists, I think, support the Whitney’s existence, you know. And feel some kind of ownership over that museum and that he would have collaborators ready, you know, to help in rethinking the way that these things happen at the museum and the way that funding happens. And to actually, yes, engage with decolonization as a process, which every museum really has to do. And everybody says, “Well, why the museums?” Because museums are fucking important, you know? Like, everybody in this field wants art to be important or believes art is important. But then all of a sudden, when it comes to actually like pointing at something to do, it’s like, well, why are you starting here? It’s because it’s important. You know? And so for me, I think, I hate to think that somebody is imprisoned by a public relations manager who says, “This is the letter you have to release.” So I’m living, maybe naively, under the assumption that he sometimes has to say things that he doesn’t believe at all.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: You know? And when I wrote my letter, it was just addressed to Rujeko and to Jane and I haven’t shared it. It hasn’t been published in the press and then they asked if they could pass it on to Adam. And Adam wrote a very thoughtful response, requested a meeting. We had a very warm meeting. And then sometime in late January, somebody had started to leak the news that I had withdrawn from the Whitney. And I’d wanted to keep it between me and the curators. And at this point between Adam, because they were the ones that really needed to know. And I also was very aware of number one, in these scenarios, when the vectors point back to one person, you know, it can be the wrong scenario where it’s about, you know, vanity or it’s perceived as being about vanity. And it’s also very easy for institutions to disregard a singular voice. 

Hrag Vartanian: True. 

Michael Rakowitz: The second reason was I did not want to put my fellow artists in a precarious situation where they felt like they were under pressure to refuse something that for them, might be an essential part of their building a critical platform. And I’m not going to make judgements on what that is and how they should do that, but I did not feel like I wanted to speak for anybody else except for myself. And I certainly wasn’t going to spin my wheels trying to make a project about this. I certainly don’t think that anybody should also be in a situation where they have to make work about this.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know? 

Hrag Vartanian: Totally. Well, you know, coming back to why museums, I think of museums as sort of the R&D departments of our culture sometimes. I feel like sometimes it’s like, why museums? Well, frankly, we don’t have a lot [of] other somewhat public spaces to have these complicated arguments or discussions or whatever you want to call them.

Michael Rakowitz: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: If we don’t have them there, where are we going to have them? 

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. And when you think about where do your school groups go? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know? I mean … 

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, big education departments. I mean, they literally have resources to interact with the public that almost no other institution probably has. 

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. And you get students to actually enact these things in some ways, behaviorally where they do experiments or they react to what they’ve seen and they draw a picture and that’s a foundational moment in the young person’s life, you know? So again, throwing kudos out to Decolonize This Place and the progress that was made at the American Museum of Natural History. To know that that horrible diorama now has something on the glass that impedes the viewer seeing clearly through it.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: Because it needs to be corrected. That’s a step, you know? 

Hrag Vartanian: Huge step, yeah. 

Michael Rakowitz: And so I think that to your point, why museums? I mean, I’m a father, you know, I have two small children and I think about those things that happen in their classroom, the field trips they go on. What is it that is being developed in terms of a worldview. Those things are deeply important to me also as a teacher. So that’s one of the reasons, the other answers to why museums. They are, like you said, like the R&D department, but it’s also where people come into contact with things that they may never get to see globally. Like, if they were to travel to places, you know? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: So if you’re going to have an encyclopedic museum, then that encyclopedia needs to tell the truth about how it was bound. 

Hrag Vartanian: [laughs] Good luck with that!

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah, right? [laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: Having been to the Abu Dhabi Louvre. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s exactly what happening there. 

Michael Rakowitz: Playing the long game. 

Hrag Vartanian: [laughs] That’s right. Exactly. The really long game. So, one of the conversations I seem to be having with people more and more is, where did the disconnect … has the disconnect between the public and the artists and the museum and the administration and the funders … I feel like there’s a disconnect there. And I think other people are feeling that. But the question is whether that’s just always been there, and it’s just the way the institutions have been built? Or are we just seeing with the rise of, like, more and more inequality, is it more? What’s your take on it?

Michael Rakowitz: You know, I think it’s maybe a question that artists don’t ask much, which is like, who’s on your board? And now I’m asking it all the time. And I think that the information has always been out there. [It’s] been in plain sight, but the degree to which board members actually interact with the artists that show in museums is a bit of a mystery to me, you know. 

Hrag Vartanian: Even someone at your level. I mean, I consider you …  I mean, you’re everywhere … maybe you’re not A-list in the auction world, but you’re an A-list in my book. So like what … 

Michael Rakowitz: That means the most to me. 

Hrag Vartanian: You feel that way. And then, you know, it’s funny, it’s similar … People assume that I don’t have [issues or whatever]. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. Everyone feels these.

Michael Rakowitz: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: Why?

Michael Rakowitz: I do think that there’s something that is a little bit nefarious in the way it’s set up where it kind of … it’s established as a hierarchy. Before you see any of the artists’ names in the museum, you see the names of the board.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: You know, if you can go to the Whitney Museum, it’s right there, it’s vinyl text that is not coming off that window, you know? And so I think that that might be one of the reasons, because it sees itself as separate. That it’s like these decisions get made. And Adam Weinberg said that in his letter, you know, board members don’t decide the content and the exhibitions, which I think is frankly untrue.

Hrag Vartanian: I was about to say, who believes that? 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, I’ve seen many exhibitions about Palestine get closed because people on the board had dissenting views and were threatening to pull money. And so I think that’s a case in point. That’s just one example.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s one of so many, you know? 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. Right. And there’s probably examples from the ’80s when it came to, you know, projects during the Culture Wars that were about AIDS and were about all different kinds of things. 

Hrag Vartanian: Or even certain artists that seem to be shown a lot in museums. And you’re like, there’s no real critical dialogue around those artists. Or it’s like, why are you showing that? You know, where’s that coming from? Who’s putting that in front of you? 

Michael Rakowitz: It’s like somebody saying, “I like Elvis. Oh, you know, you like Elvis, too.”

Hrag Vartanian: Elvis retrospect. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. Right. Quick, scratch that because somebody might do it!

Hrag Vartanian: [laughs] Oh, trust me. I’m sure it’s already on the agenda. 

Michael Rakowitz: [laughs] But the thing that I’m curious about is, you know, to what extent is it maybe time for there to be more artists on the board, you know? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. Amen. 

Michael Rakowitz: That would actually do something. Then not having someone like Fred Wilson have to fight all the battles on his own.

Hrag Vartanian: And Fred Wilson, for those who may not know, was an artist who did a very famous project in the early ’90s where he was looking at sort of the legacy of the museum and its connection to slavery and African-Americans.

Michael Rakowitz: And I believe he’s on the Whitney board. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: And so I could see him being very sympathetic to all of this, but you know, when you’re the only person that’s in the room, that’s thinking this way or thinking like an artist might be thinking, then I think that it creates more of those disconnections that we’re talking about.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And so I think that one of the things that I could see in terms of recalibrating all of this is to have artist representation and including also coming up with something that I talked about with Jillian Steinhauer when she wrote the article for the New York Times, which was something that I also told Adam Weinberg, which was about the development of some kind of criteria. You have, what is it, like this consortium of North American museums, you know, and global museums, right? That decide on, like, what is the correct relative humidity for displaying works on paper and things like that. So, I mean, why shouldn’t we have the same standards about philanthropy, you know? And that’s when I came up with … like, you wouldn’t compromise the integrity of a work on paper and show it in unsafe conditions. Why would you compromise the integrity of an artist and ask them to show with funding and with permission from people that are making conditions unsafe for others. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And so this, to me, should prioritize and foreground the person making the work in front of the work. And it also does something to allow us to move forward in a way that it is indeed more ethical.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: For me, this seems like a productive thing for us to discuss. And it seems like a not-so-impossible ask. Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Well, that seems pretty ambitious though. 

Michael Rakowitz: Oh, well, I think it’s ambitious, but I also think the changes are happening. I mean, I’m, I’m very, very grateful to Nan Goldin and to what Sackler PAIN has been doing and seeing the way that there is some courage that is being displayed by museums, you know, that began with the National Portrait Gallery. And then there was a domino effect where other museums started to follow suit.  

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I think that also just points to the fact that it’s like, even as much as the art world wants to sort of advocate for an issue, it really has to come from many places. Even in the case of Sackler PAIN, it’s not just Nan Goldin and Sackler PAIN. It was the fact that there are investigations and there are legal things. And there’s that artist who put that giant opioid, heroin spoon in front of the Purdue headquarters in Connecticut. And it’s, like, small little actions that really do feel accumulated. 

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. And in the same way that in teaching graduate students since 2006, when I moved to Northwestern in Illinois, I found that there were more and more veterans that were entering into graduate art programs. And this was because of the way in which people come back from these situations that are enabled by the military–industrial complex and the people that make things like body armor weapons. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: And they need to find ways to express themselves where language fails and art actually succeeds in those places. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And I’ve also started to see an increase in people who are coming from homes where there’s a brother or sister or a relative, or they themselves are victims of the opioid crisis.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. It’s very common.

Michael Rakowitz: It’s very common, and I think that people did not want to talk about it for a long time. And now, you know, the ability to actually speak up about it has actually, I think, illustrated just how insidious the entire thing is and how widespread. And I think we need to pay attention to those moments and not just try to, you know, throw them underneath the rug by showing all the good things that such and such a family does, even though they’re making something that’s problematic, you know, to put it lightly. And to actually make that brave decision and say that even though the funding may not be replaceable so soon, there’s a different kind of [a] making that’s happening, you know, which it goes back into society. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I always laugh at the whole funding issue sometimes because I’m like, if this is where the funding’s coming from fine, but then why aren’t people getting paid properly? 

Michael Rakowitz: Right.

Hrag Vartanian: It’s like, it’s not like these are lucrative jobs that are getting paid and artists aren’t making money off this. And then it’s like, curators are getting, frankly, far too little.

Michael Rakowitz: Right. 

Hrag Vartanian: So if this is where the money’s coming from, it’s like, I don’t know. It just doesn’t [sit] well with me. So now there’s another topic I want to talk about, which is the current Leonard Cohen show, which is currently at the Jewish Museum here in New York. It started in Montreal at the Museum of Contemporary Art and your work was shown in there. And what was the title of the work? 

Michael Rakowitz: I’m good at love, I’m good at hate, it’s in between I freeze

Hrag Vartanian: So now, do you want to, just before we get into the bigger issue that we’re going to talk about, do you mind explaining the work for people? 

Michael Rakowitz: Sure. I mean, I’ll, I’ll try to do it as briefly as possible. You know, I’m not one of these people that went to art school and loved Leonard Cohen.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. [laughs] 

Michael Rakowitz: You know, the way that it happened was I met the woman who would become my wife, who I fell deeply in love with, and she’s from Montreal. And so when you fall in love with someone from Montreal, there’s two things you need to do. One is you have to learn how to ski and the other is you have to accept Leonard Cohen as your Chief Rabbi. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, and also play it at your wedding, I’m sure. [laughs]

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. Well, you know, I can’t remember his songs being played at my wedding, actually. [laughs] I tried to make it a happy affair. But the project really has a kind of origin in 2009 where my in-laws, for my wife’s birthday, had bought us tickets to see him at the Chicago Theater. And it was amazing. And I just … It was, like, the most profound experience I’d ever had at any kind of event, you know, that was performative. And it was like, you know, somewhere between an amazing rock and roll concert and the best Yom Kippur service that I’d ever attended. And I just became obsessed, as I naturally do with anything I’m interested in, and when I went on to the Leonard Cohen fan forums, there was one post that actually caught my eye, which was that it just simply listed the date October 22nd, 1973, which is the day that I was born. And I always knew that I was born during the Yom Kippur War, during the very last days of it. But when I clicked on this topic, a picture came up and it was Leonard singing to Israeli soldiers in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur war. And three years before that, I’d signed on to the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel and then eventually BDS. And so I thought to myself, you know, “This is my new found hero. What is he doing?” You know, and I started to read up on the story, which was fascinating that I won’t go into here, but … it’s kind of this incredible narrative about a warrior poet, you know, that’s trying to make sense of his life by throwing himself into the line of fire.

But then later on that year, I ended up at Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem to do another project. And while I was there, it was announced that Leonard was going to be playing in Ramallah. Which was, like, met with cheers. People were just thrilled. He’s of course, very popular amongst people around the globe, but especially in places like Palestine, where, like, Elia Suleiman uses “First We Take Manhattan” and the kind of climax moment of his lyrical film, Chronicle of a Disappearance. And, you know, he had his poems published with the permission of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Farsi. The editions sold out within hours. Art obliterates politics. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: Beautiful. And so I was elated that, like, maybe this was him rethinking his position, but it turned out pretty quickly afterwards, that the gig in Palestine was canceled because what was determined was that it was very much a kind of art-washing, as Leonard had a date that was booked in Tel Aviv and that, you know, and in an effort to mitigate any demonstrations at his concerts, he wanted to be seen as being even-handed and to play a concert in Palestine.

Hrag Vartanian: Which, by the way, is something you often hear talking to Palestinians, where they have this expectation, it’s like someone goes to Tel Aviv and then they go to Ramallah and it’s, it’s kind of this, both sides kind of thing that ends up happening. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: And I think there’s a lot of trepidation around that.

Michael Rakowitz: Completely. And I think that it’s important to read those words carefully that were written by people like Omar Barghouti, which is about the problem of putting the oppressor and the oppressed on the same footing. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know, and to think that you can enable the other side and then come to play for the victims. And this is kind of what we’re talking about with the Whitney, as well. And so, I started to become very interested in what was the fate of an artwork in the midst of something like boycott, like, can the artwork itself survive?

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And so, I found Leonard Cohen’s typewriter through a superfan in Berlin, and I bought this typewriter from him.

Hrag Vartanian: No way.

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. Yeah. And so I decided … 

Hrag Vartanian: What kind was it? 

Michael Rakowitz: It’s an Olivetti Lettera 22, olive green, made in Glasgow in 1959 and bought by Leonard in 1960 at a shop in London. And so the serial number matches up and everything. So, I decided I was going to write a film. And so I wrote the screenplay on this typewriter about Leonard’s time in 1973, which was surreal.

And then I decided I was going to write Leonard a letter about my position and to wrestle with my angel, you know. The way that he talks about it, and it’s also spoken about as a kind of thing in Judaism. And I wrote to him and the kind of conclusion I came to was that he made a decision, he approached from the West and made one decision. I approached from the East, from Baghdad, where my Arab Jewish grandparents are from. And I make another decision where I won’t show my work in Israel, but could these lungs, these Arab Jewish lungs, that would not sing in Israel. Could I sing Leonard’s songs in Palestine? And could I deliver the concert that he was supposed to deliver in 2009 and also play with Palestinian musicians who love his music? And also he started to populate his songs with things like oud and even a little bit of qanun here and there. So, I wanted to see what that would be like. If voice is the brief articulation of a tube, then the air that comes from my lungs and this, this voice can maybe make the artwork appear in a kind of impossible situation.

So Leonard never wrote back, but then the Museum of Contemporary of Montreal heard about this project and said, “Listen, we’re doing an exhibition with Leonard’s involvement. We’re actually honoring him on the 350th anniversary of Quebec as our Laureate. And we wanted to do an exhibition and apparently Leonard’s conditions was that he wasn’t going to show up at the opening and that it should not be just, like, an exercise in beautification.” And so he wanted complicated work apparently. And so they wanted this work in the show and I was deeply honored. Like, where else am I going to show this but Montreal? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. That’s right. 

Michael Rakowitz: So they commission me to finish it. And in the midst of all this, Leonard passes away. Things start to become a little more complicated because now, all the work needs to pass through his management. The management finds out about the work and nothing happens. I see you in Jerusalem while I’m filming the scenes of Leonard in the 1973 war. But with a look-alike who I brought to Ramallah, where now Leonard is just kind of, like, in hell. In this, like, purgatory of trying to decide what’s going to happen. And I’m also rehearsing with the Palestinian band for a gig that would happen in October of 2017. And then towards the end of the rehearsals, it becomes clear that the band has gotten cold feet and that they have real trepidations about singing Leonard songs in Palestine. And then it’s a safety issue because of what the work means now to people. Not only is there the 2009 concert that concert that never happens, but then that very same picture that I found online that sparked the whole project was licensed by Leonard Cohen’s manager to be part of a mural that is, I don’t know if it’s still there at Ben Gurion Airport, but it’s there in the arrivals and departures areas.

Hrag Vartanian: Which is the main airport in Israel. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. And this mural has that picture underneath the heading, “Zionism is a universal ideal.” And so, it’s a propagandistic poster where suddenly the music and the image was owned essentially by the Zionist narrative. It was a kind of alluding in a way.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And I couldn’t force people to listen to the music in a way that was different. And then around that same time in October, November 2017, wallah.com, which is an Israeli news website, published a report that Leonard’s music was being used to torture Palestinian prisoners. And Electronic Intifada, I think also reported this, or made some reference to it.

Hrag Vartanian: Which is a Palestinian website that’s been published. Very vocal.

Michael Rakowitz: Yes. For almost two decades now, I think. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, exactly. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. It was very clear that to sing Leonard Cohen in Palestine would be like, you know, a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto listening to Wagner. And so, it was something where the film that I made then concludes with me performing one song on a stage in an empty theater. And it’s Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” which really is about voice and about the breath in one’s lungs being a kind of potential for words to be uttered, but being held in a place of indeterminacy. So the first line of the song is, “If it be your will, that I speak no more / And my voice be still, as it was before / I will speak no more, I shall abide until / I am spoken for, if it be your will.” So, if you want me to say. I’ll sing. And if you don’t want me to sing, not singing is a choice, you know? Non-participation is a choice. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right. 

Michael Rakowitz: Sometimes not going forward is the right thing to do. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: And so, it was shown in Montreal. I got a considerable amount of hate mail for it.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, you did?

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: From who, mostly? 

Michael Rakowitz: From people that were very right-wing coming from … I would say even beyond the Likud camp, in terms of diasporic support of the Israeli state. And then it was clear to me from the curators that every time Leonard’s manager entered my installation, that he was kind of furious. And so, when the show closed and I guess it was the spring of last year, the question was what it’s going to do to tour. And so they said, “Well, we want the pieces part of the tour, but Leonard’s manager’s furious. So you have to talk to him about it.” So the curators basically left me out to deal with this on my own. Thanks for the support, right? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: [And then] Leonard’s manager met with me and it was a cordial meeting and he … to distill it all, more or less said that he felt it was reductivist. It didn’t tell Leonard’s side of the story and that he had agreed to a concert in Ramallah and that he wanted that concert to happen. And I told them I wasn’t going to force the music down the throats of the Palestinians. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: And in terms of the other side of the story, I mean, I’m sorry, we’re living in the other side of the story, you know? And I wasn’t going to change the work. And so I was given a choice to change it or I’d be forced to withdraw, so I withdrew. And so now there’s a big question about whether or not this work can be shown, how can it be shown, but I’m actually interested in that as a material. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, yeah. Well, because it’s sort of the future too, isn’t it? I mean, if we’re going to have contentious debates and difficult discussions, these shouldn’t be the issues that trip us up, do you know? 

Michael Rakowitz: Right, right. Exactly. What low-hanging fruit is. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. I mean, it’s like, this is not even that complicated. I’m going to be frank. Who the hell is the manager, you know what I mean, to decide the intellectual property? But that’s just my take, so.

Michael Rakowitz: Right, well, people in show business they all understand that, they’re like, “It’s his brand.” And I’m of the belief that like, when you make art, it starts to seep into the world. It’s not yours anymore. This is something that I wrote to Leonard because at the end of the letter, I say, “I don’t know why I’m asking your permission. Who owns a song?” And actually Leonard has this beautiful apocryphal story that he tells about how when he was here in New York, he lost the rights for “Suzanne,” his most popular song. And he says, “It’s probably right that I lost the rights for it because just the other day I heard sailors singing it on the Caspian Sea,” you know? And it’s like, please live up to those words, you know? Like, actually mean what you say. And, and I believe that though, you know? It has me thinking about an artist’s legacy and how should we prepare for the time when we’re no longer here? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: And how can the public experience our work, you know? And I’m starting to think about, like, what would it mean for things to become public domain? Like a folk song.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: You know? 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: That’s a choice I’m thinking of making, but I also think that, like, in a way you can’t stop it, you know? Like, this stuff, he might be able to get me on certain things if I sell it or if I do this or I’d do that. But in the end, somebody in Palestine is going to sing, you know? Everybody knows.

And so that to me becomes, you know, a really interesting material of the work. But I am interested in that. You asked me what I do. At the beginning of this conversation. And I think that what I do also is I go slow. And when I go slow, things happen in the work and the work ends up reacting to the things that happen. It’s not like I try to brush them under the table. It’s not like I try to just kind of fix it. I become very interested, like when I imported dates as part of a project called Return in 2006, the short story is that the dates ended up traveling the same trajectory as the Iraqi refugees and they never get here.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know? And so some people could say, “Oh, it’s a failure.” And for me it’s anything but. It’s an unexpected result. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know? And I asked a question and I got an answer. And so in this case, I’m interested in seeing how to go through with the next steps of this without being sued for libel. [laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, I bet. So the show traveled here to the Jewish Museum in New York. 

Michael Rakowitz: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: And your work is not in the show?

Michael Rakowitz: It is not in the show, no.

Hrag Vartanian: So, how did that process work? So do you talk to the manager and the manager just didn’t get permission so it couldn’t go with the work? I mean, what did that look like? 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, what, it looked like was put into a position where I had to voluntarily withdraw because the only way going forward would have been for him to basically be an editor. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. 

Michael Rakowitz: And he wrote things like, I look forward to helping you complete your work. You know? Like when the emperor tells Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, “I look forward to completing your training.” It’s like, this is where you jump down that big shaft and say no, you know? For me, it was just not a situation that I think I was misreading. I mean, he was telling me between the lines legalistically what he was going to allow. And it was, you know … I wrote a letter to the curators and said that I would not be joining the tour. And so it’s open tier and I won’t be visiting. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. I mean, when I said complicated, I meant it. At the beginning. Because you really create these … the interesting thing for me is they’re kind of beautifully simple ideas in some ways. Because, you know, they sort of, like, worm into your brain and you’re like, oh, what a beautiful idea. You know? I mean, everything from like, you know, Saddam Hussein’s … 

Michael Rakowitz: Star Wars?

Hrag Vartanian: Star Wars or, like, it doesn’t matter. It’s, like, all these beautiful ideas that sort of show up and they worm their way in. But then you find how they exist in the world to be difficult. Where does that tendency coming from for you?

Michael Rakowitz: That’s a good question. I mean, I was very, very affected by architecture when I was a student. And one of the things that I loved about architecture was the unbuilt project, visionary architecture. And it was usually the architect’s best project because that’s where everything’s on the line. It’s what they believe, you know? Their social vision, their structural vision demands a culture capable of its existence. And of course it can’t be because of cities’ laws or, like, the laws of gravity, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Cost of material. 

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. 

Hrag Vartanian: All these things. 

Michael Rakowitz: I mean, but I loved it. I loved being able to see that kind of poetic critique of reality and that wish, you know? Her response was like, [if] wanting this or that is impossible, then we demand the impossible. And it was like a poem, the way that she recited it. And I think the demanding the impossible is something that I kind of feel an unapologetic [draw] towards. And I think in my works, what I’ve tried to do is to set up those prototypical situations where I can make that seemingly impossible thing happen as an artwork, you know? To be able to do something as crazy as import one ton of dates that no importer/exporter in their right mind would try to do [from] Iraq, from a war zone in 2006, and it becomes something that can only exist in that frame as an artwork, it can’t exist as an import/export project. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Michael Rakowitz: You know? So I try to make those things happen. And that’s one of the reasons why I also feel very lucky to have worked in conjunction and in collaboration with other fields, whether it’s international trade or the field of archeology or architecture. 

Hrag Vartanian: So I want to talk a little bit about that privileging of arts sometimes, you know? Because I think we were talking about being in Palestine and in Israel. And it’s funny, it’s like, when you’re crossing borders and you tell the people at the border you’re an artist or an art person, or you went to go see museums, somehow we get a pass. Not that I’m complaining [at all]. But I’m kind of curious, why the privileging of that, like, why is that okay? Well, if we were to say we’re importing exporting dates, there would be all these obstacles and hurdles, but you’re saying, “I’m importing this for an exhibition in a museum in wherever.”

Michael Rakowitz: Oh, well let me clarify. So [I] actually in order to do this, had to reopen my grandfather’s import/export company from Iraq that he brought over with him when they immigrated to the United States in the 1940s. There was no way of doing this as an artwork. There wasn’t an excuse at all. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, so it was the opposite.

Michael Rakowitz: It was the opposite. But I had funding, you know? [… The] New York foundation for the arts gave me a grant for architecture and environmental structures. And I actually had to show … [laughs] I had to show them a picture of the dates piled up in boxes and say that is both architecture and an environmental structure right there. But I had cultural money to work with that allowed me to do something that somebody who’s trying to be a functional importer exporter and make a living would never be able to do. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. I stand corrected. 

Michael Rakowitz: No, no, no. But I think what you’re saying is actually quite interesting because my experience with telling people I’m an artist has been hit or miss. And especially when crossing a border into a place like Palestine, all they needed to hear was that I was doing a project in east Jerusalem with an organization called Al Ma’amal, and also teaching at the Art Academy in Palestine in 2010, for them to strip search me and detain me for hours. And now whenever I go, I’m not saying this as a way of wearing it like a badge of courage or anything, but it’s the reality that now I’m always detained, you know? Because it doesn’t matter that I’m an artist, it’s actually part of the problem. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know, because whenever a school is set up in a place that’s like Palestine, [the] last thing they want is the people to be educated. That’s where a lot of the activism generates from. We’ve seen it here in the United States. So, one thing that I talked to Emily Jacir about was I was astonished at the Art Academy in Palestine, that most of my male students had all been in jail at one point or another. And it wasn’t because they were doing armed resistance. It was because they were showing up at protests or whatever, or, you know, going places that were dangerous because of the dissemination of knowledge.

Hrag Vartanian: Sometimes wrong place, wrong time. 

Michael Rakowitz: Right. But I think art … I think it depends on the place. I mean, was it your experience in Jerusalem that you got in easy? 

Hrag Vartanian: I got it [in] just because they were like, “what are you doing in Palestine? You know, what are you doing?”

Michael Rakowitz: They said the word “Palestine”? 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, no, they didn’t of course. I mean … [laughs] They probably said Ramallah, I don’t remember these conversations. So, but I said, well, I was going to the Palestinian museum. And they’re like, what do they show? And I was like, contemporary art. And they’re like, really? And I was like, yeah, you should go. [both laugh] 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, yeah, I mean … 

Hrag Vartanian: Do you know what I mean? It was absurd. And then they were like, who did you meet? I mean, all that stuff, but somehow I did feel like it made it a little [safer]? Maybe they didn’t have the check box or something. I don’t know what it was. So that’s what I was trying to figure out with you as an example. 

Michael Rakowitz: I have to say that when I feel like it’s going to be hard to explain what I do, you know, sometimes it’s easier to say I’m a teacher.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know, and that’s not necessarily the example of Palestine, but like, you know, Turkey or wherever else. But I think that, you know, I’m interested to know more about what you want to unpack in that privilege, because I do think that there’s something there.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: Like, we seem to presume that we have some kind of … I don’t know, a carte blanche that other professions don’t allow for and being able to kind of [say], “okay, well, I’m going to this place and it’s in the middle of [a war], but I’m going as an artist,” you know?

Hrag Vartanian: I feel like it’s also the proximity to power, we have in the arts community. Even though we’re not a big community and we’re not necessarily a wealthy, at least not all of us are wealthy, we’re adjacent to privilege and to power and to money in a way that I think sort of emboldens us. I wonder. Just throwing it out there. And frankly, it gives us that privilege of being able to call someone and getting something through or getting the right lawyer to give you advice or … [laughs] 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, if there are lawyers who are willing to give me advice about this Leonard Cohen film [thing] … [laughs] 

Hrag Vartanian: Contact contact us and we’ll connect. They’ll work.. So, I want to ask you why you think it’s important to go to Palestine and work there. It’s not an easy place to work, and it does open you up for a lot of criticism sometimes from many sides. But, you know, particularly when you’re walking into an area that’s internationally sort of seen as an occupied territory. Now, why do you go? 

Michael Rakowitz: Well, I go because I had an excellent reason to visit people that I care about, whether it’s Jack Persekian at the Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, which is a Palestinian organization and these Jerusalem, or to visit Emily Jacir and to come at the invitation of [the] International art Academy at Palestine, which she helped co-found, and also for a place like Dar Jassa. And I think that making art in those places is something that exists like anywhere else. I mean, to say that art doesn’t have a place in these cities under siege is just kind of, like, a further dehumanization of the people that live there and a kind of spectacularization of this violent image that we always have of places.

And for me, I really enjoy teaching art to people for whom the stakes are high. And that goes for people here in the States [who are] going to school and they’re taking it super seriously. They might be the first generation in their family to go to school. It may be at a community college where somebody is, you know, getting a second chance to go to school after it not working out. And in a place like Palestine, they’re taking four years and resistance or sumud, or steadfastness, for them [is] going into the making of work. And so, I think that it’s a way of me broadening [my] understanding of art and my experience of teaching art as an instructor.

But I also have, you know, some very real historical and autobiographical connection to that place. And it comes from my grandparents on my mother’s side being Arab Jews from Baghdad, who were there for millennia and [suffered] the heartbreak of having to leave when nationalist programs in the Middle East and made it impossible for them to stay there.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Michael Rakowitz: You know, I grew up in a house where all the food was Iraqi and it was the music that was at the family functions were the classic Iraqi songs, like “Chal Chal” or “Fog al-Nakhal.” And this was normal to me, you know? [In] a way I just thought it was Jewish, but then like I had a Motsa ball at somebody’s house … 

Hrag Vartanian: You’re like, “what is this?”

Michael Rakowitz: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And [it] was something I really embraced once I realized that, when the first Gulf War was happening in ’91, that those green-tinted CNN images were placing all of the stories that my grandmother told me about that city at risk. And so at 16, you start to ask a lot of questions and the question around Israel, which never really got asked, you know, coming from suburban New York, where I was growing up, made it clear to me that the disappearance of the Arab Jew happens at the same time that there’s a disappearance of Palestine.

And so those two, those two moments intersect. And so I’m deeply … I’m not just deeply interested, I feel deeply connected to that culture. And there is not a difference between a place like Ramallah and Baghdad. But there is connection. There’s quite a lot of connection and, and I feel deeply connected to it, deeply interested in it. And I also believe that our liberation and our struggle for that liberation [is] intertwined. And I find it an imperative on many different levels, you know? And it’s not simply something that I feel like is the work that I must do. It’s also the work that I want to do, you know? [It’s] a way of reconnecting with those spaces that my grandparents made for us when they could no longer live in Baghdad and tried to [make] the house that they moved into in Great Neck, New York representative of it.

Hrag Vartanian: Well, thank you, Michael. This has been excellent. 

Michael Rakowitz: Thank you. 

Hrag Vartanian: And I’ve [really] enjoyed talking to you and thank you for making the art world a very interesting and complicated and nuanced place. 

Michael Rakowitz: Thank you. I think. [both laugh]

Hrag Vartanian: This episode is pretty special because it’s the first time the music throughout has been that of the artist himself. A special thanks to Michael Rakowitz for sharing his many talents with Hyperallergic listeners. Now, one last thing. We’re going to end this podcast, which as you can tell is longer than most of the interviews we’ve done, because frankly, I found it really hard to edit down what he said. Everything seems important and clear. He’s a natural at this. Well, we’re ending with the artist reading the letter the wrote to Leonard Cohen himself, which he mailed to the singer before he died in 2016. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening. And now, again, Michael Rakowitz. 

Michael Rakowitz: August 14th, 2015

Dear Leonard,

I hope this letter finds you well. I’m typing it on your green Olivetti, 22 Lettera typewriter, a prize eBay acquisition for which I paid dearly. I have been trying to contact you through your representative, Robert Kory, since November 2012. In his response, he said that you and I should meet and that we have much to talk about as artists. Sadly, I have not heard any further, so I’m reaching out once more.

I don’t know if you could simply consider me a fan. I’m a very great admirer of your work, although I came to it late in order to romance a girl from your hometown of Montreal. Proselytization finally occurred during your concert at the Chicago theater in May 2009. I was taken in by your humility; your poignant utterances renewed my faith in poetry’s potential to change the world. During the encore, you coyly recited the traditional Hebrew “Birchat Kohanim” blessing in everyday language, a kind of farewell that was bestowed upon an audience of mixed backgrounds with a simple warning that we should bundle up because the weather was tricky; that if we should fall, may it be on the side of luck; a wish for us to be surrounded by loved ones, and if this was not our lot in life, that the blessings find us in our solitude. I never felt more Jewish in my entire life. 

I’ve sat through many concerts and 44 Roshashana and Yom Kippur sermons. This was the pinnacle of any live collective event I can recall to memory. Later that same year, I traveled to Jerusalem to make an artwork of my own with a Palestinian organization called Al Ma’mal foundation for Contemporary Art. I was elated to find out that you were scheduled to play in Ramallah in September at the invitation of the Palestinian Prisoners Club. But then the restrictions of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel forced the gig’s cancellation, as you were also scheduled to play Tel Aviv that month, just days after your 75th birthday.

The statement issued by the boycott explained the reason for the cancellation of the concert in Ramallah. “Attempts at ‘parity’ not only immoraly equate the oppressor with the oppressed, taking a neutral stance on the oppression … they also are an insult to the Palestinian people, as they assume that we are naive enough to accept such token shows of ‘solidarity’ that are solely intended to cover up grave acts of collusion in whitewashing Israel’s crimes. Those sincerely interested in defending Palestinian rights and taking a moral and courageous stance against the Israeli occupation and apartheid should not play Israel, period. That is the minimum form of solidarity Palestinian civil society has called for.” 

Leonard, I believe boycotts are problematic. I think that politics can obliterate art, but I also think that art can create facts and bring to light truths that are suppressed. Your words have had great impact around the world. And in particular, in the Arab world, in West Asia. Palestinian director Elia Suleiman features your recording of “First We Take Manhattan” during the climax of his lyrical film, “Chronicle of a Disappearance.” Your prose is quoted by poets and artists from Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. Two collections of your poems have been translated into Farsi and published in Iran, where Jewish poets are not well represented. Both additions sold out within hours. Art obliterates politics.

Seepages of this kind have happened before. Music can be the ultimate circumvention. Even if it’s forbidden, it finds a way, like the colors of the Palestinian flag banned by Israel, but re-mobilized by Palestinians holding up slices of watermelon in protest. Unrelenting, red flesh, promising black seeds, and protective white and green rind. I think of your music being heard in Palestine. And I think of Israelis who love to hear Umm Kulthum’s music, circumventing boundaries, and nationalist ideologies, bouncing around on radio waves, like ships passing on an open ocean.

I’ve never been interested in being perfect, neither morally or ethically. I’m interested in the real, the contradictions and the resultant tensions that are created within the self. I think about you — the you who was born in 1934, and the 11-year-old boy who in 1945 saw footage of the inferno that was the Holocaust. A tragic truth, and one that led to overwhelming support for a Jewish homeland, for a Europe in exile. 

Your desire to balance your presence, playing in both Ramallah and Tel Aviv, is one that I therefore understand. I was raised in suburban New York, and there seemed no logical reason to not support Zionism. Then in college, I was introduced to the facts of an indigenous people’s dispossession and humiliation, the cost of constructing a Jewish homeland. I saw footage of the atrocities committed at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. Cognitive dissonance set in.

I’m currently working on a project about you titled “I’m Good at Love, I’m Good at Hate, It’s In Between I Freeze.” The title is of course taken from your poem, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” This paralysis and the middle is the moment that captivates me. I feel it too, and I think many Jews around the world who are faced with the ethical crisis of what Israel is and what Israel does feel it as well.

The project may or may not be a film. It centers on your participation in the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a kind of warrior poet. You were 39 years old and you traveled to Tel Aviv from Hydra, Greece to, as you said, “stop Egypt’s bullet.” Believing that the future of the Jewish people was at stake, you position yourself firmly in the line of fire. Photos of these performances exist, including one taken on October 22, 1973, the day I was born.

As the story goes, you are spotted in cafe penalty in Tel Aviv by the singer. Oshik Levi, who was dining with Ilana Rovina, Pupik Arnon, and Matti Caspi. Levi approached to ask what you were doing in Israel at such a time, you responded that you didn’t really know, only that you couldn’t stay away. Maybe you would work on a kibbutz and replace somebody who had been called to war. Levy told you that entertaining troops would be a much bigger service and he invited you to join him and the others at his table to perform for the Israeli soldiers fighting on the front lines. Initially you declined, thinking you’d ruin their morale. You said, “My songs are sad. Music to slit one’s wrist to, according to one review. Another critic called me ‘the prince of bummers.’ Egypt has Umm Kulthum. 

You’ll lose the war.” After being assured that it would be okay, you agreed and joined Levi and other entertainers to form a group called the Geneva Conference, touring military bases throughout Israel. You wrote that the performances were ad hoc, with soldiers shining flashlights on the singers, and that it was very informal and very intense. On one occasion, you played for a group of soldiers gathered around a canon. Introducing “So Long, Marianne,” you explained that this song should be listened to at home with a drink in one hand and your other arm around a woman you love. You said, “I hope you’ll have that soon.” Just as you were finishing the first verse, you were interrupted by an Israeli officer who ordered the canon to be lifted and shot in the direction of Egypt. “Please continue,” the officer said. You were shaken, but you collected yourself and resumed singing. You crossed the Suez Canal and set up at an abandoned Egyptian air base. There, you found a poster of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and a can of mashed potatoes labeled, “a gift from the people of Canada.” A helicopter arrived. Wounded and dead men were brought onto the base. You looked at them and began to weep. An Israeli soldier comforted you by saying, “Do not be sad. They are Egyptians.” The sense of relief you felt disturbed you. Your final stop was Ismailia, where you were told that the only architecture is tanks. There, you were introduced to a general, Ariel Sharon, the lion of the desert. Under your breath, you asked him, “How dare you?” He did not repent. You drank some cognac together, sitting on the sand in the shade of a tank. You wrote, “I want his job.” Months after you left, in an interview with Robin Pike of the British rock magazine ZigZag, you reflected on your time on the battlefield. “War is wonderful,” you said. “They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion. There are opportunities to feel things you simply cannot feel in modern city life. Everybody is responsible for his brother.”

Leonard, I pulled some documentation together about this period of time in your life, but I’m too unsettled to allow it all to rest politely as a documentary. 

Let me explain. My grandparents fled Baghdad in 1946 for political reasons. I grew up hearing my grandmother recount stories of that city, a remembrance of a lost home.

As Jews living in Baghdad in the 1940s, my grandparents’ lives became increasingly difficult as the tide of politics turned and the British mandate for the partition of Palestine grew closer and closer to becoming a reality. Their land was confiscated, their assets taken and their lives changed forever in some ways, a good forever. In many ways, a sad forever. My grandparents spoke Arabic and traditional foods during the holidays were kubba, mashi, and arouk. They were Jews but they were also Iraqis, until they were told they could no longer be Iraqi 

Looking through old photographs recently, I came across several of my grandfather wearing a keffiyeh. It reinforced for me that we were actually Arabs. Arab Jews. This term existed in the world until 1948. Now it seems like an oxymoron. I am not interested in arguments and accusations about who is responsible for which exodus and who suffered more whose hands and when. But the well-documented programs that sought to de-Arabize Arab Jews upon their arrival in Israel was another act of cultural erasure.

The existence of the state of Israel could not be possible without a choreography of historical narratives that does not always intersect with truth. “A land without a people for people without a land,” goes to the saying. Well, there were people there. Every Jewish institution that I’ve ever known has displayed the Hebrew inscription “zachor.” Remember. And as a Jew, I cannot support a Zionist position because of what it forgets.

I am therefore asking your permission, Leonard, to remember. To illuminate truth. As a Jewish artist who has written many letters declining invitations to exhibit in Israel, as a signatory of the Academic and Cultural Boycott, I ask your permission to perform the concert you planned in Ramallah as a culmination of this project. I do not wish to normalize your decision to play in Tel Aviv or for Israeli soldiers four decades ago. Rather, I want to know if your music can be salvaged and under what terms. I wonder if singing Leonard Cohen in Palestine is akin to playing Wagner in the Warsaw ghetto. But if the Palestinian people will permit me, I hope to breathe new life into your words from my lungs, Arab Jewish lungs that will not sing in Israel and to reincarnate, not re-enact, the humanism that some believe was emptied out of your work. This is not meant to be an attempt at correction. You came from the West and made a choice. I approached from the East and make another. But I am heartened, for it is you who once wrote:

“I can’t run no more / with that lawless crowd / while the killers and high places / say their prayers out loud / But they’ve summoned / a thundercloud / And they’re going to hear from me.”

Perhaps I don’t need to ask your permission. Who owns a song? Reflecting on the pilfered rights to “Suzanne,” you said, “It is probably appropriate that I don’t own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea.” Indeed. Your songs are now part of public space. They belong to the world. 

I don’t know why I’m writing to you then. I suppose it is about honor among artists. I see the conflict in you and the conflict in me and think that somehow we can blend and have it both ways. We can’t have it both ways. I want you to know that in war sometimes the good guys lose and that maybe you sang for the enemy. I guess I want you to know that the way you feel feels normal to me, but that normal is no excuse. I will go now, and stop Israel’s bullet. 

Sincerely, 

Michael

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

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