Tali Keren’s multimedia practice interrogates how the individual fits within national and transnational networks of power. From her various collaborative projects which mine the limits and potential of political and legal imaginaries in the United States to her video trilogy Heat Signature (2018), The Great Seal (2016–18), and Un-Charting (2021-ongoing), which delves into the insidious imbrications of religious, political, and military institutions across the United States and Israel (where the artist was born), Keren employs diverse modes of audience participation to shift dialogue on politics and power.
For this interview, we discussed her most recent project, the film and installation Un-Charting, currently on view at the James Gallery at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Accompanied by a series of public programs — talks and musical performances organized with Adam HajYahia, the New Red Order, Kite, Hadar Ahuvia, and the Middle East and Middle East American Center (MEMEAC) — Un-Charting asks its viewers to critically attend to the destructive fantasies that have shaped American-Israeli relations. We talked about the sources and origins of Un-Charting and the artist’s hopes to unsettle dominant Zionist narratives on both sides of the Atlantic.
Chelsea Haines: Your video installation Un-Charting brings together striking historic and contemporary narratives about the Holy Land produced by Christians who projected their own messianic visions onto a landscape about which they had very little material knowledge. The self-proclaimed prophet Richard Brothers wrote his fantastical prophecies about Jerusalem in the 19th century, while the members of the Faith Bible Chapel in Denver today travel to Israel on highly orchestrated trips to perform for the Israeli army. How do you see these figures and their stories relating to each other and to the present-day material realities of Israel/Palestine? Why did you want to bring these stories together?
Tali Keren: Un-Charting is tied to my own movement between sites and political realities. I moved to New York from Jerusalem eight years ago. Since then, I’ve been examining the shared settler-colonial imaginaries that tie Israel and the United States, grappling with their interconnected role in state violence in Palestine and beyond. Un-Charting is the third chapter in a body of work that examines manifestations of Judeo-Christian messianism across time, as well as the deep connections between Zionism and Protestant Christianity. In this series — as in much of my prior work — I developed projects by conducting extensive research on two parallel tracks: Studying historical archives and collecting documentary material and letting connections between these sources emerge.
Political instrumentalization of Biblical beliefs can be highly seductive, indoctrinating, and mesmerizing. I’m really interested in the frighteningly effective political potency of messianic zeal, and a lot of my work critically engages its use of aesthetics, emotional storytelling, music, and dance. That interest led me to document a dance troupe of Evangelical teens from Colorado who travel to Israeli military bases annually to perform a pastiche of Israeli “folk” dances dressed in Israeli military uniforms. I interviewed the troupe’s Israeli choreographer and the church’s American Israel outreach director and filmed the teens’ routine. This material sat in my computer for several years. I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Things came together when I came across Richard Brothers’ writings, which struck similar chords of projected fantasy, religious fervor, and embedded violence. Brothers’ detailed map of a New Jerusalem literally flattens and wipes away the place he imagines making way for his Biblical vision of a utopian gridded order. I see his colonialist visions resonate with both the Orientalism underpinning much contemporary Evangelical rhetoric on Israel and with Zionist attempts at Palestinian erasure.
To go back to your question, both Brothers and Faith Bible Chapel participate in long traditions of projecting theological fantasies on the “Holy Land.” But such imaginaries have very real effects on the ground. They support, and are fundamental to, actual state-sanctioned violence — materialized in Palestine as Israeli occupation and apartheid and the dehumanization of Palestinians through the ongoing Nakba.
Today, many Israeli politicians have formed political alliances with American conservative Evangelicals. They further the conservative Evangelical church’s manufactured and divisive myth of the so-called eternal enemy of Islam while conveniently ignoring the antisemitism that often accompanies this ideology.
Un-Charting brings together Christian messianism and Zionist mythology precisely because their ties and effects on the Middle East today are often overlooked. One only needs to look at the current far-right Israeli government to see the dangers of racist, messianic, militaristic settler politics. However, it’s important to me to be clear that the violence these ideologies engender is structural to Zionism, not an aberration of the current parliament. But I also refuse to believe these structures are impossible to dismantle. The accompanying programming will engage these interconnected global threads, foregrounding alternative revolutionary imaginaries based on liberation, true equity, and solidarity.
CH: Let’s talk a bit about the aesthetics of Un-Charting. Although Brothers wrote about his visions of a new Jerusalem in the early 19th century, the way his prophecy is rendered in Un-Charting feels like science fiction. How did you arrive at this mode of visualizing these narratives?
TK: The film Un-Charting is set up as an immersive game-like simulator, placing the viewer in the eye of the storm of an ideological state apparatus. Brothers wrote his utopian vision of Jerusalem from a mental asylum in Britain, having never been to the Middle East. A 180-degree curved screen sucks visitors into his colonial hallucinatory space. The film begins with a sea journey reminiscent of Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492 or the Puritans’ crossing of the Atlantic in the 17th century. Gradually, Brothers’ gridded map emerges from the water, becoming a futuristic neon-lit city — rhyming the European conquest of the “New World” with the colonization and partition of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The film speaks to these as interconnected world-historical events. But beyond that, I am interested in the aesthetics, contradictions, and erasures inherent to imperial and nationalist temporal stitching as ahistorical mythic pasts teleologically leading to a specific political present and an imagined end-of-days future. This made me think of sci-fi tropes like time travel and terraforming. I felt that 3D animation and gamification would tie the material’s militaristic and orientalist themes together and I worked closely with the film’s animator Ayelet Shoval and the dramaturg Nir Shaulof to create a captivating sensory experience.
Reading Brothers’ text, I was struck by the resemblance between his messianic vision and Theodor Herzl’s writings. Herzl, a founding father of political Zionism, used speculative fiction to articulate a colonial ethnocratic logic as a solution to Europe’s entrenched antisemitism. I ask: If so much of this logic is other people’s fiction, can we engage fiction to break through it? Although my film uses sci-fi aesthetics, it is also a documentary, using interviews and original footage. Fictions constantly reverberate with (and within) material realities.
CH: Participation has been a key element of your practice, such as The Great Seal (2016-18) in which you invited participants to recite a speech delivered at the annual conference for CUFI (Christians United for Israel). The audience experience in Un-Charting feels different — it feels like a coercive, almost involuntary form of participation. Was that intentional? What effect do you hope the installation has on the viewer?
TK: I’m always interested in the complex dynamic between witness and participant. I don’t know if I agree with the word involuntary in the case of Un-Charting. I think of participation as a multi-faceted word. The forms of participation I explore in Un-Charting, and in The Great Seal and Heat Signature, ask questions about degrees of participation and complacency in state violence. My work asks: What are the coercive mechanisms which perpetuate harm on a societal level? And how are media, rhetoric, and aesthetics “recruited” in the service of this harm? In Un-Charting, there are various registers of participation; some are contradictory. The immersive nature of the exhibition design and film is intended to draw you in like a video game or a slick commercial. Then there are the participants in the film: the — to my mind — indoctrinated American teens sent to perform for soldiers, the Israeli and American interviewees supervising this endeavor, and myself as the artist. Showing this work here adds an additional layer to questions of complicity and participation: American tax dollars literally funded the construction of the military base referenced in the film; it is part of the three-billion-dollar package sent annually from the US to Israel, which sustains the occupation. The film may center individuals’ stories, but as the layering of choir-like voices throughout the work suggests, these individuals are part of broader systems of violence.
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