Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Squatter Imaginaries

One of the most intriguing facets of Dionisio Gonzalez's photographic constructions is that they immediately question the viewer's knowledge of what a "slum" actually looks like and what are the political forces that shape slums. To that end, he asks us if "slum" is even an appropriate term at all. Viewers less familiar with these spaces may not detect the careful nuances of his work and instead simply digest these as neither appropriate nor inappropriate images of global poverty, but rather as ones that are simply real.

In my opinion, what is most important about any work of art is the actual effect it will have on culture and public perception. In this case, we are forced to ask what messages about squatter communities are being transmitted through these images? How are we supposed to view them in the first place? Despite the way they may look to us, how is it that those from the outside want to view these images in some way, and digest them as accurate portraits of squatter settlements? More importantly, how does one even responsibly represent global poverty anyway? It's a delicate subject and we need to be mindful whenever a representation like this is asserted for any group, especially one as politically charged as global poverty.
Gonzalez's depictions of the favela in Brazil are daring and clever and not only evoke a sensibility about how places of urban poverty can be seen as humane but ultimately captures an image of the contradictory landscape that lurks within these sites as well. In this sense, he not only shows us how extreme poverty looks but also how its landscape is politically produced – how spaces of poverty are formed from the inside. Through a kind of architectural ambiguity he shows us the organizational conflicts that squatters wrestle with in their struggle to survive, exposing tensions of being caught between the unnoticed accomplishments of their own self-assembly and of being re-imaged by some formal outside intervention that seeks to restore a certain order to their perceived chaos.

Given this conflict I think his images bring a dignity to the lexicon of visual references that commonly creates a public awareness (or a lack thereof) around these informal settlements and that have – for the most part – been defined by the media's dismal portrayal of global poverty. It seems like the media is always focusing on them in the wake of some disaster, a flood, a fire, or only as the evidence that human squalor does indeed still exist. Rarely does it seem the shanty is shown to us in light of its own exceptional operability, its vivacious culture - instead these elements may only be used to angle some sort of slumaphobia or slumsploitation of a kind of othered world poverty chic.

On one hand, we see the favela here as a colorful and humanized, somewhat un-depressed space of habitability in Gonzalez's eye – there is a sense despite the hyper-density that some spatial pressure has been relieved from the favela by its own doing, which runs counter to the typical collective imaginary of seeing shack dwellers as savages heaped in an insurmountable pile of urban depravity and debris. While, on the other hand, I'm not sure if his images actually alight a sense of social responsibility in the viewer in the way I think they are intended, or whether they unconsciously - and against their own will - reinforce this "civilizing" perspective of the favela as a place where spatial order needs to be imposed.
Viewing these images alone without any additional story or knowledge of Gonzalez's craft or explanation there is an undercurrent of two worlds fusing together in what almost casts a raw glimpse of the world's urban future where the continued global mixing of the Developed and Developing worlds begins to clash and architecturally blur, break down and ultimately reconstruct itself into something else looking like this. In fact "squatters" already constitute the largest single source of homebuilders worldwide today.

In this image (that almost assumes a tourist postcard perspective, ironically enough) the chaotic informality of the shacks suddenly rests upon one another in columns of a new kind of visual order. The sprawling totality of the unbridled favela is suddenly somehow geometrically grasped now, while in reality the spaces of the favela easily slip through our perspective's fingers as they are arranged by an unpredictable meandering of gaps and temporary walls, and a more or less incomprehensible maze-like logic of spatial circulation. We might say, in their very lack of formal planning, that the favlea is unwittingly designed to resist any sense of conformity to our organizational understanding – to our westernized viewing of them. However some of Gonzalez's renditions arrange the favela within a kind of logic of reform that is not altogether idealistic but is more discernible this way and confronts us with the question of whether the favela can even be rationalized or not.

In viewing these images we can't be sure if the blend of scrap structures and more formal design elements are in overall harmony with the squats, or whether they are altogether entrenched in some sort of deeper disorganizational conflict. Are these subtle designs exerting any power over the settlement? Are these clean and modern signs of gentrification appropriate in any way, or simply ignorant of what is miraculously being improvised by the squatters on their own? Is Gonzalez suggesting that so-called globalization in this context translates to a modernized strategy for refining the typology of poverty and reshaping it into a more civilized image? Or, are these architectural interventions actually helping to buttress the vitality and natural evolution of the favela itself? The politics of space are absolutely critical to our own understanding of how spaces of poverty are not only produced but how they may be treated – and even how they may be seen.
Further toying with this ambiguity, his images provoke a realization that while the Third world is being threatened by creeping forms of gentrification a part of the "civilized" world is also being overcome by the scrappy rash of what we might call a Third Worldization. That is to say, even though we are definitively looking at the Brazilian favela there is an implication that the favela is also moving into these other urban sites of global wealth abroad. Somewhere therein the role of the architect is mediated. Essentially, as I read these images, Gonzalez is questioning whether architects and planners are merely adding to the spatial divides of global poverty and wealth, or whether there is a deeper humanitarian role for them to assume where they may be able to make a positive impact towards improving the conditions of the favela without re-imaging it. We must question, however, whether the ambiguity in these images suggests a positive interweaving of these worlds or whether it is the disguise for a more subtle bordering within them.

We might just as easily read these images as complexions of the spatial-ordering of global capital that is super-imposed onto places of informal settlement by architects and planners. Either way, the question of the architect's role is an astute reflection on Gonzalez's part because in actual practice this is a critical realm of engagement for the architect who seeks to address the sites of global poverty without giving into to a remaking of them – and I think Gonzalez's work brilliantly negotiates the sensitive nature of that terrain. Of course, another interpretation here is that the shack dwellers have managed to pioneer new uses of these foreign materials themselves and to some degree already represent the new breed of global architects today.

I think however we see these images if we examine them collectively it is clear that all of these issues are illustrated in them together offering perhaps a page-by-page un-layering of the internal/external overlap of the favela's urban archeology, where the intrinsicality of the favela collides with the outside projection of it, where politics are inherently cast in the structures of the favela as well as reinvented by some outside re-imagination of them. At the core, these images are about the favela's struggle to construct it own identity.

In a recent interview Gonzalez did for ZOOM magazine he mentioned how some of the most important urban renewal strategies in Brazil have failed due to the prevailing attitude that the shack dwellers "should be prescribed some kind of morality" through the state’s provision of replacement housing, and that "those invisible to the system should finally be cataloged" by it. He cites the Cingapura Project ("Brazil's most important shantytown re-urbanization and verticalization program") as a massive flop of an intervention because it unfurled no plan that was at all in accordance with the favela context itself, it neglected the favela-dwellers entirely by not ever discussing the project with them, and ultimately revealed itself to be an indexing structure for those laborers who were "invisible" and needed to be officially logged into the government's bureaucracy. His insights into the ways the disrespectful reform doctrine of the government’s re-urbanization planning are spatialized through these mega-housing projects are cogent and amazingly documented through these images. Gonzalez said much of his work is motivated to both make evident the less visible political landscape that dehumanizes the favela by re-imagining it through these types of "proletarian parks of verticalized operative housing" projects (as he calls them), and to help visualize an architectural alternative that can go with the favela and that will preserve what he refers to as a "symbolic de-categorization of their inhabitants."

[Image: Real Parque Favela's Cingapuras (via).]

One thing I find ironic about these billion dollar re-housing programs is that often times they are stated as a means to defeat the organized crime that operates within the favelas, yet the favelas themselves are also deemed these labyrinthine spaces of utter chaos. It's interesting to me that for a place that could be seen as so unorganized that the government believes their only scheme to defeat the "organized crime" of the favela is to re-organize the neighborhood physically to one that it horizontally ordered and fashioned according to the principles of official organizational planning.
In addition, Rob points out on his blog that even the well-oiled machine that is allegedly looking out for the squatters' best interests are not always completely in touch with what that may actually be.. This he illustrated in light of a recent $10m donation from the Gates Foundation to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) who's been found intimidating certain groups of squatters into joining their coalition.
Rob wisely writes, "SDI should note that with money and success comes responsibility to be inclusive. SDI tends to only work with groups that embrace it's own 'savings-plan' version of organizing. But there are many communities that don't see saving money as the best organizing tool, particularly if they are facing immanent eviction. SDI now has an opportunity to broaden its vision and its reach."

Another thing Gonzalez mentioned in the ZOOM interview was that it's not always that photographers get to propose architectural solutions. And as a non-architect myself I can relate to his inspiration here. Somewhere in his structural ambiguity he has not only I think envisioned a vibrant squatter-led future into urban salvage, but has helped us to see more clearly all of the complex layers of representation that go into both the (un)making and the simultaneous viewing of the sites and shanties of global poverty. Even more so, his images conjure the possibility of spaces still to come. That is, I view these images as both critical and constructively radical; in a constant state of becoming (like the shanty) they piece themselves together through perpetual transition, progressing, resisting, rooting themselves into their own place of being, architecting their own political future. When it's sometimes easier to just iterate the problem with an elegant critique, Gonzalez goes further to convey an alternative born of the shantytown, his own version of a re-urbanization plan using the fabric of the favela itself. In short, he portrays the favela as continuing to pioneer its own destiny, shape its own space. And quite honestly, I think his images are a brilliant visual re-constitution of what I’ve called a ‘squatter urbanism’ and - needless to say - I can't stop obsessing over them.

Be that as it may, I am also cautious (as I am reminded in the Flint piece) of obsessing over the image too far in a way that keeps detached from the more complex landscape behind it. No matter how we try to acknowledge this I realize I am not immune to falling into my own innocent love affair with an aestheticization of the image. Because in the end, even the images themselves play into their own kind of political imaginary, one that can be, as I've said, inadvertently complicit with the tropes that continue to dictate how poverty is viewed from afar, and so perhaps we also need to be willing to accept the more commonly overlooked perspective which is that – despite our best intentions and political conscience – it may be more useful in some ways to just let the squatter communities represent themselves.

[Image: The Morrinho Project, from the LA Times, From the streets of Brazil, 2007, photo by Wania Corredo.]

On that tip, I am reminded of the Morrinho Project out of the Rio favela, Villa Pereira da Silva, better known as Pereirão. Regine covered this a while back, telling us that back in 1998, "kids built up a miniature reproduction of their favela (Pereirão, perched above the upper class Laranjeiras neighbourhood) using bricks and other materials left-over from building their own house. The model covers 300 square meters, and is inhabited by scavenged toys (plastic cars, little figurines carrying AK-47s or a ball, etc.) which are used to re-create scenes of everyday life in a favela: from dance events to clashes between gang members." She goes on to quote from an article that explained just how true-to-life this model was. So much in fact, that the police thought it was being used to help create a kind of favela war-plan and forced the kids to tear it down. Since then the model has gained a lot of attention and portions of it have traveled around the world and been reassembled in various art exhibitions, namely the Venice Biennale.

What I find most compelling about the project, which has since spawned its own independent TV production studio and guided educational tours of the neighborhood, while continuing to circulate the model in exhibitions, is the fact that it all started from this basic desire to build a replica of the community. And what an amazing job those kids did, too. Seriously. I mean, I am so curious of the process, what they did and did not consider building it, and why? With what new eyes they looked back upon their actual favela architectures? What specifically they learned about Pereirão while doing this, or what ideas/critiques came to mind about their favela, what they loved, wished they could change, etc.?

Or, what kind of healing component exists in the modeling and recreation of their neighborhood? Without sounding too psychoanalytic, I wonder if there isn't a kind of implicit therapy built into the project, through the remaking of the model, this total recreation of the community's physical layout? Could this be a much larger and informal kind of play therapy for children who have been exposed to horrendous violence? I don't know, there just seems like so much cathartic potential in something like this. Totally fascinating to me to say the least, and to think that this crazy stack of bricks and toys has spawned this NGO into action is pretty inspiring.

[Image: The Morrinho Project, from the LA Times, From the streets of Brazil, 2007, photo by Wania Corredo.]

There was a recent LA Times piece written about this as well, and the movie industry that's "looking to foster local talent and present a more nuanced picture" of the favelas while also seizing on the global pictorial trendiness of 'slum culture' that's gained the attention of Hollywood now with hits like City of God. This model has also provided opportunity for smaller local film collectives that can produce certain scenes now much more cheaply. The article mentions the acting troupe Nós do Morro and Cine Favela, a non-profit film making crew, both of whom have worked with members of Mirrinho. Check out the work, very cool stuff.

[Images: The Morrinho Project, from the LA Times, From the streets of Brazil, 2007, photo by Wania Corredo.]

I just love how the original replica served as a catalyst for this type of community building, local self-empowering, artistic activity. I wonder how we might all benefit from the same sort of exercise, building replicas of our own communities as a way to engage and examine them more closely. Of course, what's most important is that all of this emerged from within the favela itself, it wasn't airlifted in, designed from the outside, or photoshopped later, or demolished and recreated from scratch. It was recycled, remade, re-imagined out of their own scrap heaps, fancied into their own self-portraits, which gets back to my original thoughts about the shanty being able to tell its own story with its own material, through its own representations. This just seems critical to me - self-representation. I wonder how many stop to consider the autobiographic power of urban salvage this way.

All Images of Dionisio González's work can be found here: 1; 2; 3; 4)

(Spotted at Josh Spear, thanks to Michael!)

Monday, November 19, 2007

An Exceptional Paradise

[Image: Balsero Rafter Crisis (1994)]

OK, I dug up some scoop on the migrant detention facility that’s being developed on the “Leeward North” side of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base directly adjacent to the “Windward” side where the terrorist suspects are being held at Camp Delta. I somehow missed a few news articles about this in the Camp Justice post a few days back – so, here’s an update.
As it turns out the proposal to build warehousing structures for interdicted refugees in the event of a ‘hypothetical Caribbean boat crisis’ is already well under way. Even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates shot down a costly proposal for a $125m Military Commissions Courthouse earlier this year, the Miami Herald, who has been doing a good job of keeping watch on Guantanamo’s base development, says progress is being made on the migrant detention installation with some lucrative contracts in the works.
It appears the Bush administration has not only been preparing for what’s being referred to as a “theoretical humanitarian relief mission” by developing a sheltering scheme capable of accommodating 10,000 people – for those either “fleeing a political crisis” or “a natural disaster” – but there is another second wave proposal (no pun intended) that is looking to build out even larger facilities for an additional 35,000 potential migrants.
That’s the architectural equivalent of a small California suburb; a suspended city of netted refugees perched right there on the lush exotic tip of Guantanamo Bay – in a state of exceptional paradise, Agambenian bliss – where 330 terrorist suspects are already camped alongside the ballooning new temporary courthouse complex I mentioned earlier, none of which differ that much structurally at all, really.
At a cost of $16.5m the Navy, according to the Miami Herald has “hired a Jacksonville contractor to build concrete buildings with 525 toilets and 248 showers on an empty corner of the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, base.” This equates to roughly a couple dozen concrete block latrine buildings that Reuters says will be able to withstand 130 mile per hour hurricanes, each capable of providing emergency shelter for up to 500 people. The plan would be to station extra tents around these buildings if more shelter space becomes needed. This particular installation is expected to be ready by the summer of 2008.

[Images: Balsero Rafter Crisis (1994)]

But, you must remember the 46,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees that were temporarily captured at this very same location during the ‘94-‘95 mass exodus to the U.S.? For months families remained in tents on an abandoned airfield and some old beat-up golf course. It was estimated that over the course of a year or so more than 60,000 refugees were forced to squat in those tents on the base until most of them were eventually deported back to their countries. A news brief from CNN back in January of 1996 reported while most of those tents were broken down the Pentagon stated “facilities for 10,000 migrants will be kept in case they are needed in the future.”
Since then other propositions have been floated around to locate refugees from other parts of the word there, like the Kosovars in 1999.

The Rueters piece also tells us the new building progress is part of ‘Operation Vigilant Sentry,’ “the government's multi-agency plan to thwart a mass influx of boat people fleeing political upheaval or natural disaster in the Caribbean.” By the year-end concluded back in September the Coast Guard supposedly intercepted 2,868 migrants in the Florida Straits, “slightly above totals for the previous two years.”
Rueters also writes, “Work was finished a couple of years ago on a site that could hold up to 400 migrants in tents and cots stored in shipping containers on the base. A barbed-wire fence separates it from a neighboring galley and bar.” According to The Herald this compound already “shelters up to about 40 asylum seekers on the base at a time.” In theory, the article explains, should there become a demand the military personnel running Camp Delta would deploy these tents to shelter increases in nabbed migrants.
So, the numbers of Florida-bound boaters rises and the Pentagon kicks preparations into high gear, for migrants, maybe, sure – or maybe for something else, we don’t really know for sure, do we? Regardless, Guantanamo is definitely getting some serious upgrades and we can only be cautious about how far they will go.

[Image: Rafters from Cuba en route to Florida, USA, via Floating Cubans.]

Both articles mention recent government bids were being sought for another $40m project to expand the infrastructure so that it could accommodate 35,000 more people pushing the overall detention capacity to 45,000, back to ’95 crisis numbers. Though, they also state that no bids have yet been put out for this next phase, and other estimates actually project a much higher cost for such an expansion that is realistically closer to $110m, which is where DS Gates’ comments come back into play. What will actually constitute the next phase of the base’s urban development remains to be seen.
But, there you have it – Guantanamo Bay is undergoing the kind of construction that would make any budding bay resort proud, even if it’s for interdicted refugees. Of course, I’m being somewhat sarcastic here. It’s hardly becoming a bay resort, but in its own bizarre and exceptional sort of way, maybe it is – just not for migrants, but rather politicos and contractors who are cultivating the perfect extraterratorial island retreat to conduct the shady military maneuverings that have defined Guantanamo’s legal status in the first place.
Even though some of these projects (Camp Delta, Camp Justice, Camp America, Leeward North, etc.) are said to be separate from one another (functionally and literally), the fact they share the base itself and come from the same site begs the question: how coordinated will their functionality in the end actually become? Am I crazy to express concern over asylum seekers one day being processed through the same legal machinations as the enemy combatant detainees? In other words, could Leeward North become a way to suspend refugee and migrant rights and militarize the legal process for asylum seekers? Or, maybe the opposite could be true. With the disturbing interlacing of political narratives between the issues of immigration and national security that has occurred post 9/11 it comes as no surprise to see these separate spaces emerging in similar forms – the tent city – coming together, mutually confirming each other’s structural (and ultimately political) usefulness in some way.

Forgive my skepticism, but perhaps the legal practice of Leeward North is merely a way to help legitimize the dubious legal nature of the base’s operations – as an attempt to validate Guantanamo Bay’s indefinite detention of Al Q suspects in some capacity.
Though, is it really even possible to separate these camps from one another? Aren’t they all just pop-ups on the same landscape? Since both immigration and national security are ultimately trumped by the agenda of terrorist prevention one can’t just sit back and read about these ‘separate sites’ without considering their abysmally blurry spatial connections.
If we were to put the amount of new construction at Guantanamo Bay into a different perspective, say, seeing the amount of development in relation to its own size and scale, for example – then we might say the Cuban base (which is only 45 square miles) is seeing more building per sq. mile than that of China, the most booming place on the planet currently. Now, I realize that’s an absurd comparison (especially since I don’t know the exact square mileage of total construction at GB or China), but it goes to show how much attention (and the kind of attention) Guantanamo is getting these days. I wonder where New Orleans would fit into this silly little scale? I mean, how many refugees do we still have there waiting for housing, for infrastructure, and what is the American government doing? Building multi-million dollar vacant emergency housing containers for a theoretical mass exodus on the sub-legal shores of one of the most controversial military sites in our times.
America’s priorities never cease to amaze.
More interesting to consider though may be what the base might look like fifty or a hundred years from now? It wouldn’t be foolish to assume that in that time the War on Terror roundups will continue to swell by the thousands, as will, sadly to say, probably ICE's illegal immigration raids; or, that Caribbean nations like Haiti and Cuba will slip further into economic desperation. More than likely the region will be repeatedly ravaged by phenomenal hurricanes and wayward cyclones, while biblical flooding will drown the landscape to the point of new generations needing to rear their young on a lifetime of stranded rooftops. NAFTA and its intercontinental highway I bet will produce a goliath backlash of illegal immigration, while migration from Mexico and the entire southern continent will find dramatic new sites of contest as border militarization intensifies. I guess, all of which makes the refugee interdiction compound make sense, from the Pentagon’s point of view.

[Image: Photo by Army Sgt. Sarah Stannard, Guantanamo migrant operations facility will assist refugees in distress, Oct. 3, 2007.]

And so, who will be living there over this time? Unlawful enemy combatants, Haitian children, Cuban fathers, Muslim extremists, Hispanic agriculturalists, Army sergeants and their golfing buddies? If we think about this from the perspective of prison operators, then in order to build detention facilities you have to make sure to fill them afterwards. So, as Gitmo’s new structures become more permanent I wonder how long it will take for the Pentagon to fill them. Will they one day be brimming with an ambiguous overflow of brown faces blended by the desperate looks of weary migrants and the hopeless portraits of lifelong terrorist suspects? Or will Guantanamo Bay become more permanently temporary like a pop-up landscape secretly perforated with tent cities that can just as easily be assembled as they can be put away – will Leeward North be the ultimate hurricane proof migration detention facility of the future? What about that damned golf course, I wonder how it looks these days. Maybe it can be expanded from a dippy little nine-hole to a full eighteen in years to come and Camp X-Ray can host a PGA tournament there to benefit the rights advocacy for the Accused Military Prison Torturers and Abusers Coalition (AMPTAC).

Sorry, I’m being ridiculous I know, but let’s just say for a moment that the hypothetical boat crisis never comes, what will the vacant refugee Holiday Inn latrines be used for then? It seems unlikely they’ll just sit there indefinitely unused in the absence of any exodus. Or have they already taken into account how Leeward’s tent city might serve other strategies for the rest of the base in the meantime?
Tell me I won’t one day see an entire population of quarantined detainees there making up a kind of global capital city for trying the War on Terror’s suspected losers?
One thing for sure, it looks like the U.S. is mimicking the offshore bufferzone strategy Australia uses with its detention islands situated around Indonesia, and Europe who keeps African refugees at bay by stashing them in foreign military bases on the northern coast of Algeria and Libya.
In the end, hundred of years from now, will the whole thing be a Global Warming-proof well-oiled extralegal machine-city designed specifically for the purposes of trying the migrating suspects of global terrorism?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Centre 127

[Image: Check out the work of photographer Nick Hannes, amazing coverage of conflict and geopolitics. This image is of the notorious "Centre 127", a state-run detention facility located within the Brussels airport premises in Melsbroek. It's been in operation since 1988 and has faced scrutiny for detaining children seeking asylum. Photo via International Detention Coalition.]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tracking Border Ghosts with Ronen Eidelman

[Image: The Ghost of Manshia, Jaffa, Israel, 2007. Photo and installation by Ronen.]

I remember when I found Ronen’s project (un)Documented Disappearance back in March I was blown away. I thought it made crucial reflections on migratory space today, filling the street drains of Europe with images and documents of refugees and immigrants trapped in the gutter, being washed away like trash in a perpetual stir under everyone's feet, conjuring this kind of urban consciousness about migrant struggles as they ghosted past in the peripheries of our street-wandering eyes.
Well, his latest project is an awakening of the ghost of Manshia, a coastal Israeli city known today as Jaffa that was garrisoned from the Arabs back in 1947. This time Ronen has outlined with chalk the old boundaries of the Arab neighborhood just south of Tel Aviv before it was transformed by the Israelis.
I love this project for many reasons but mostly because of the way Ronen understands borders as outlines of memory, as ephemeral bodies in themselves, and not merely lines of state power.
Segueing nicely from my last chat with Jay Isenberg about the Israeli Security Wall and his future plans to retrace "the spaces of the uninhabited" along a "pilgrimage of hope" somewhere near the Israeli/Palestinian border, Ronen and I recently talked about his work as a public artist, his skepticism of archeology, what he hopes to achieve as a ghost chaser and No Borders activist, and different ways public art in the form of direct action can subvert the political regimes that cement themselves in structures like border walls.

[Bryan Finoki] I'm curious when did you first learn about the history of Manshia and what originally compelled you to do this project?

[Ronen Eidelman] I've been living in Jaffa and south Tel Aviv for over ten years so I have become well aware of the many destroyed Arab neighborhoods in the area I've been living. The history is very visual, you can see the old Arab homes and the old Arab names that are still used by many people today. I learnt the more precise history of Manshia from the wonderful book by the architect Sharon Rotbard, White City, Black City. The book provides a social, economical and political history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa through architecture and city planning and presents an alternative to the Zionist narrative that I grew up on. Reading Rotbard's book really strengthened my desire to discuss publicly the dark history of Tel Aviv. So when the Ayam Association initiated The Autobiography of a City project and approached me to suggest a project dealing with the memory of Jaffa I was very exited. I'm motivated mostly by exploring political art in public space and this was an opportunity for me to work in my own neighborhood.

Was there a precise aim or intended experience you were trying to generate with this, or was it more intended to overlay the past onto the present and just see what sorts of responses might naturally be triggered from that?

Approaching the project I asked myself how I could resurface the past without destroying the present. In archeology to expose and learn of the past you must destroy the present layer. I grew up in Jerusalem and became very resentful of archeology because I saw how it's been used as a political tool and how these reminiscences of the past make life in the present almost impossible.

How so, what do you mean exactly?

On the first level - the clear physical level – if the whole area is dug up and ruins are exposed all life on the top level disappears and what is created is what is called an archeological garden, which is an outdoor museum of ruins. Because these digs serve the political purpose of proving that the Jewish life in Jerusalem existed previously to the Arab life, exposing the past becomes more important than the rights of the living. A neighborhood can be destroyed in order to dig underneath it. But, on a more theoretical level it can also make life impossible. When the political debate and arguments are only occupied in proving past rights and possessions of land it can leave no place for discussing future solutions for a just and peaceful life in the city.
So, I wanted to keep the park as the living place, to not disturb the vibrant life that the park already holds. But at the same time I wanted to create a situation for the visitors to learn what lies under the grass. Most Tel Avivers still believe in the myth that the city was just born from the sand a hundred years ago as a Modern Hebrew city. Through this project I wanted to illustrate that Tel Aviv was born from Jaffa and portray the Arab history of the city in an easy to digest but honest and clear way.

There is a poetic and therapeutic quality in the release of a repressed history from the maw of all that has fallen upon it since it destruction. As with most public art installations there is a degree of attention that is specifically called to the site, but in this case the site itself is the installation.
Getting at the territorial fossils and urban erasure that come and go through history, and the ways memory is stored or censored in the landscape, I'd like to hear your thoughts on how certain narratives of injustice are both embedded in landscapes but also how those same narratives of power can be unraveled through public art? How do you see your work in relation to place, in particular its role in revealing the hidden contexts of the site?

Standing at the site with knowledge of the past makes the surrounding history become very clear, you can see the Hasan Beck Mosque, the Turkish Train Station, the Etzel House (the only three buildings still standing) in this unnatural city fabric. The erasure and destruction is very obvious but completely un-felt. Because the site is a park on the beach it's a place of leisure and pleasure and has a much stronger identity now that way. It's very different from many places that symbolize the injustice like destroyed villages and graveyards, or even the rundown neglected poor neighborhoods you find in other parts of Jaffa.

The people coming to the site are in a good mood and come here to relax. Those who randomly visited the site were more open to listen and have discussions with us. The majority of the people who where exposed to the project had no idea of the actual history and were quite surprised when they learned where they were standing – but understood very quickly. This I felt was extremely important – they did not come to a memorial or make a special trip, they were confronted with the past simply on their way to the beach or to have an innocent picnic.
Many of the older people in Jaffa and Tel Aviv have forgotten about the neighborhood of Manshia or just never stopped to grasp where they were standing. But once they realized what we were marking on the ground many of them got nostalgic and told us their memories of the area. One day we were approached by some old men who were members of the Etzel (Irgun) paramilitary group that conquered and destroyed Manshia in 1947. One of the men fought in the very place we were standing at that moment and even pulled up his pants to show me his bullet wounds. In the beginning he was very aggressive, attacking us and literally trying to stop us from working. But, as the conversation grew deeper he saw the seriousness of our research and how we were basing the project and he finally chilled out a bit. It was amazing though hearing this oral history from him as he pointed out actual places nearby where battles and tragedy had occurred. What was very interesting was that he did not deny crimes were ever done or that the Arab population was expelled, he just kept insisting that our project would provide more ammunition for "our enemies and just like when you shit you don't do it public so we should not talk about our crimes in public."

I am obsessed with borders, as you probably know; their legacies, impacts, histories, production and so forth. One thing I find most intriguing about your project is this conjuring of ghosted borders; borders that may have been forgotten but still persist in some way or to some people. Or, perhaps even the opposite: borders that still exist but have somehow been forgotten.
The notion of unmasking hidden borders, uncovering their lost significance, political pasts, and superimposing them over contemporary contexts is always fascinating to me. Especially today given the intense erosion of the nation state and the global trend to harden geographical boundaries, the projected cartographies of post-empire landscapes, yada yada yada.
But I am intrigued by how we archive and recall a place's unique history – and the implication that a border is something much greater than a physical, geographic, spatial, or political boundary. There are so many dimensions to what actually constitutes a border.
Anyway, how does this project reflect on the regional evolution of making and remaking contested borders? What does it suggest about the ways borders linger and persist in our consciousness, in the form of things not built?

I chose to mark the lines of the borders in a football field because I find the idea of the football lines very fascinating. The lines and markings on that field have to be clear but they cannot disturb movement. The players must notice them, listen and watch out for them, but they cannot become physical obstacles in any way. If the players respect these borders and obey the rules the game will work because the players are completely free to move in and out of the borders (only the ball can't leave). However, playing with this similar notion, I see the project more of a marking of memory than a marking of borders – like the chalk line outlining the body of a murder victim. It is a sign that a crime has been committed in that very spot, even though the body has been removed the memory of the crime is still very present. When you look at the maps before 1948 of the borders between Jaffa and Tel Aviv they were very clear, but in talking to the people who lived on the municipal borders they gave them very little importance – borders were permeable sort of like they are on the football field. There were Arabs living on the Tel Aviv side and Jews Living in Jaffa. I'm not claiming that they were in harmony and there weren't any conflicts but they were neighbors who shared food, looked after each other's children, and of course did business together. So I'm not interested in redrawing the borders and claiming parts of Tel Aviv as Arab, what I'm interested in is the Idea of the potential of living together like they did before 1948.
So, with the project I wanted to blur these different definitions of borders: as permeable and shared boundary markers, as imprints of forgotten lives, as a neighborhood zone of new potential to live amongst each other in spaces of border overlap.

Aside from the old paramilitary members, was there any resistance to this project from official bodies, or was it rather widely supported? Did the production itself bring people together from across barriers; did it cause conflict; or was it relatively benign? I'm curious not only about what the project in the end provokes but what comes up during the project's development. You’ve spoken to some of this already but what were the types of public responses or dialogs that emerged along the way? Did you yourself stumble upon any surprises as a result? What have you learned?

The project was supported both financially and logistically by The Tel Aviv Jaffa Municipality. I was surprised they agreed to support us but was also very happy. I guess Tel Aviv feels strongly enough today to confront its dark history. Sharon Rotbard thinks that the reason for the acceptance of this discourse (his book is very popular) is that its sexy for a city to have a dark history, nobody wants to be the geek who just built nice modernistic white houses on the sands. To be honest I don't think the people in the culture office at the municipality deeply understood all the aspects of the project and just saw it as a nice way for Jewish and Arab residents to do a nice cultural project together. I was surprised from the response and the level of dialogue that went on with the passersbys during the days of the marking. People really engaged themselves with the project, studied the maps we distributed and asked many questions. Of course some people called us traitors and cursed at us but it was really minimal compared to what I actually expected might happen.
There was not as much denial of history, or lack of historic context coming from the public. The facts around the forceful expulsion of Arabs from Jaffa are rarely contested. Most of the arguments were whether it had to be done or not, if there was no choice for Tel Aviv but to defend itself through offense. Some of the old Jewish people were describing in detail their life of fear living in small Tel Aviv and being attacked from the Iraqi and Egyptian armies who were heading towards Tel Aviv. It was amazing how they were still living pre-‘48 fears when there was no state to protect them and how their fears still make them so fragile even though Israel is a military superpower and Tel Aviv is a rich dominant city. It’s so crazy that the politics are still based on the battles and wars of yesterday even though the reality is so different.

I am reminded of the work of Francis Alÿs who walked through Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank with cans of green spray paint that he used to retrace the Green Line and show the discrepancies of how it has been (un)observed by Israel's territorial expansion. Did that piece have any influence on your work here, or have any other similar projects around border revival? How did you first get into public art and these types of landscape resurrections, if I may call them that?

I'm familiar with the work of Francis Alÿs but like I was saying before not interested in marking borders, as an anarchist I try not to give importance to state lines. My work is much more influenced by projects that deal with memory and that explore the life that was destroyed from state violence. A big inspiration is Zochrot, a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. They do all sorts of creative actions like changing street signs back to their original pre nakba names. I come from an activist background and for many years I've been active in anti occupation and anti capitalist groups, mainly Anarchists Against the Wall. But, with time I came to learn the limitations of political work. Now, through art I hope to examine and question my world in a fresh and stirring way, and move beyond the obvious and all the clichés. The political power structure today makes it almost impossible to influence change on the ground, especially in the short term. But culture is always a step ahead of politics. If we can influence the culture then later perhaps the political process will follow. So through my projects of art and other forms of cultural production I use the experience and tactics that I’ve acquired through my political work. The political and the artistic share an invaluable relationship. In direct action you confront the problem at the place where it exists. In a similar way of thinking I like to confront the power structures, the leading public perceptions, shed light in places where it's most effective and challenge the people to become more aware of and critique the place where it’s happening. Hopefully my art helps to instigate this way of engaging place.

How long did the ghost of Manshia remain evident? I like the choice of white chalk to evidence the ghost, too – an essentially temporary and ephemeral material. Was that an intentional way of suggesting the fleeting nature of border, the ashen remains? Did the chalk lines dissolve on their own? Or, was the use of chalk more motivated by your desire to materialize the old border in a way that wouldn't obstruct the soccer field so both could co-exist peacefully in the present? Is that then a comment on how borders can exist overlapping simultaneously, and how perhaps a single border can be acknowledged differently depending on which side you are standing?
Maybe I am reading too much into it but I think the project has done an excellent job of being all of these dimensions of border in a single moment.

There are still some remnants of the markings but most of the lines started to disappear after three weeks. Like my project in Jena I choose to make projects that don’t last. I don’t feel it's my job to create monuments. I like to raise questions and to shed light on dark places, but once the discussion starts I feel the art should step aside and let the life of the project itself take over. Political art that overstays its relevance can get pathetic. Borders change all the time, and they should – its great the different cultures and populations are always in transit and change just as long as it’s done voluntarily.

What other sites did you consider, if any? I mean it would be incredible (be it totally unfeasible) to conduct this same type of border resurfacing with all of the borders that have undergone radical transformations over time in the region. Imagine an entire landscape marked in the chalky delineations of its geographical past. Perhaps this could launch an ongoing project that encourages local residents to research the disputed boundaries of their locale's past and share in the redrawn recollection of them. A massive web archive with aerial photography could begin to catalog them, so that eventually we have the entire suspect boundary evolution retraced, revived from the dead?
I don't know – call me crazy that might be ridiculously unrealistic.
But, in some ways the Ghost of Manshia is an inversion of your previous project, (un)Documented Disappearance. In that project you used the sewage gutters and existing cracks in the city's urban fabric as a means to call attention to the crisis of borders and the shadowy spaces of migration. In this recent project however you redrew the borders that were no longer visible as another way of creating public consciousness about these forgotten populations of people, place, and culture that have been pushed underground.
I guess finally my question is: where might you take this theme next? Are you working on any future projects that will continue to illuminate the border?

Sadly, there are many other places I could easily consider for a similar project not only in Jaffa, or Israel/Palestine, but all over the world. On one of the days we were marking I started arguing with a man who did not like the project and he said, "Why don't you go and mark the destroyed Jewish neighborhoods in Iraq?" And I told him that I would love to, but unfortunately it’s not possible these days, and that ultimately it’s the responsibility of the Iraqis to reconcile their history of the Iraqi-Jewish expulsion. Then he asked me, are the Germans or Polish marking the Jewish quarters in their towns? I told him yes and that I know of dozens of really good projects in Germany and many artists who are dealing in a serious way with the tragic Jewish history in their country. I added that I'm not familiar with Poland but assume that young Polish artists are also doing projects.
Anyway, the next day I got an email from a Polish artist, Kasia Krakowiak saying that she had visited my project and would like to meet me because she is working on a similar project in Warsaw about the Jewish ghetto. Krakowiak, with Dr. Muto and Maciek Ozog have created a platform that uses cellular technology to recreate the borders of the Warsaw ghetto. The participants who agreed to have their phones tracked received text messages on their phones that metaphorically related to the walled Jewish district as they entered the boundaries of what was once the ghetto. This project was conducted back in September of this year (just before Manshia) and was very successful. But Krakowiak still felt that the borders of the Ghetto needed a more physical marking. Even though the participants in Ashaver 220 volunteered to be texted when entering the Ghetto what I like about this is that through a different kind of bordering you can also confront those people who don’t even ask to know the history of a place, or its old political boundaries. After meeting with Kasia Krakowiak we have agreed to work together to more physically mark the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto, which makes a great juxtaposition with her mobile phone driven border mapping. We haven’t decided yet how this will be done exactly but we are meeting next month to advance this important, exciting and terrifying project.

Politically speaking, what is your take on the current trend in global bordering that is going on (especially in context of the war on terror) and its relation to the global economy? What is your opinion of the Israeli Security Wall, or the controversial border fence along the U.S.-Mexico boundary? Or any of the heavily fortified stopgaps severing the tides of mass migration from the land of opportunity (Morocco/Spain, South Asia/Australia, Romania/Central Asia, Kashmir, Taiwan, NK/China, etc)?
How do we begin to unborder the world?

I'm clearly against borders and for freedom of movement for everyone. I feel part of a movement that is also a community. My opposition to the Wall in Palestine comes also from self-interest; I feel that if I want a future in the Middle East as an Israeli Jew I need to fight against this criminal wall. The wall is ghettoizing me and creating a never-ending cycle of war and violence. But I also understand that this wall is part of a bigger picture. The walls between the US and Mexico, the walls around the EU, and the walls being built in the cities between the rich and poor neighborhoods all over the world. I went to the No Border Camp in Ukraine because the eastern fence of the EU is also my struggle. At the camp I met people I knew from previous struggles I had participated in Palestine and Germany and I don’t think it was by any accident we rejoined. We are already unbordering the world through the old fashion concept of international solidarity. We first do it in our minds, but then also physically by just crossing. I’ve been to Palestine many times even though its illegal for Israelis, but it’s a small price to pay compared to the Palestinians. Mostly I think it’s an important act of solidarity. And when we were in Ukraine we marched to the Slovakian border and held a rally in front of the main immigrant prison there.
Art projects are a part of an entire campaign that includes direct actions, border smuggling, solidarity, education, legal action, academic work, demonstrations, writing, video, parties and so much more. None of these actions stand alone but are part of a global network that is building a massive community of immigrants, refugees and privileged "good" passport holders like myself, who all believe together that we can destroy all of these borders from bellow.

[All images from The Ghost of Manshia, Jaffa, Israel, 2007, by Ronen.]

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Dialogue on Walls with Jay Isenberg

[Image: "Today they shoot your son, tomorrow they shoot mine." -Uri Na’amati, Israeli father of Israeli protestor Gil Na’amati from “Barrier”, Isabel Kershner, p.126, Palgrave Macmillan 2005 / A relinquary for Dialogue on the Wall / Photo by Bill Kelley.]

A couple of months ago I stumbled across the project Dialogue on the Wall by architect Jay Isenberg out of Minneapolis. He installed his own portion of the Israeli Security Wall in the Form + Content gallery using the barrier as a historic narrator of the Israeli/Arab conflict, and to reflect cultures and personal stories on all sides of the border. What I found most intriguing was the notion of the wall serving as a kind of healing space for its own scarring and spiritual wounding.
Soon after, Jay and I made contact and traded this short meditation on walls over email. To my pleasant surprise, I found out this current project is actually part of a sequence that Jay is working on to explore this theme of the wall serving as a bi-cultural mirror for conflict suture.

[Bryan Finoki] What are the more intimate connections the show was making between the Wailing Wall and the Separation Wall?

[Jay Isenberg] "Dialogue on the Wall" is our second work based on the concrete portion of the Barrier between Israel and Palestine. You don't have to point out that one's choice of words when referring to this is laden with meaning and indicates the speaker/writer's point of view as well as one's entry point into this conflict. In any case, the first project was called Two Walls - An Architecture of Conflict and Reconciliation that was a totally virtual installation co-created by Ron Haselius, an architecture trained digital modeler whom I've worked with in the past. Images from this project can be seen at This project sprang from a sketch I made of these two iconic Walls, the Western (Wailing Wall) and the Separation Wall colliding. What kind of space and what kind of commentary would this trigger if these two Walls, so opposite in history and meaning collided? The result was this virtual installation with its large scale spaces of opposite sides, zone of collision, and place of reconciliation and contemplation. It was accompanied by two presentations at St Cloud State University under the auspices of the Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, head of the Jewish Studies program, which has its own interesting and poignant history.

[Image: From Two Walls - An Architecture of Conflict and Reconciliation by Jay Isenberg.]

After these presentations the project was put to bed for a year and didn't raise itself again until we joined the collective, Form + Content Gallery and now had an opportunity to take some of these ideas and transpose them into a real installation, one designed specifically for a small gallery and on a limited budget. What to consolidate with so many options and how to execute them was daunting. I knew we had to build a "Wall" in the gallery, that we were going to project text and images on it, that there was going to be other art forms interacting and that it was to collide with the Western Wall. Funny thing happened on the way to Dialogue, the Western Wall disappeared totally from the project, it turned out that the visceral power of the Wall we built was plenty to serve as this backdrop for engagement and conversation. And so the "intimate connections" you asked about had to emerge from conversation or self reflection and never really became an element of overt significance. I might also add that there were no references to nor images of the Holocaust. As significant as it is to understanding one perspective, I purposely wanted this to come from the viewers and not imposed upon them.

How did you go about designing this project, from the construction of the wall to the selection of objects embedded into it? How did you gather this material?

To build on the last question and answer, the intimate connections came from designing and viewing the Reliquaries. This idea was totally my wife's, Lynda Monick-Isenberg who is an artist, thinker and teacher and total collaborator on this project. Many of the ideas and their development we owe to the time we spent on nightly walks with our two border terriers. Her history and understanding of ancient reliquaries as vessels for sacred objects (bones) struck us like lightning as the perfect expression of the intimate connections shared by both traditions, from burial practices, homage to the land and olive trees to the violence and horror of terror upon all, especially children.

So, we found these objects (plenty of dumpster diving), encased them in acrylic vitrines, searched for and found interpretive words of poets and writers to overlay upon them and connect the visual with the written. We did not cite the writers on the reliquaries in order to minimize preconceptions of the viewer. These emerged from the Wall within a narrow space covered by a chain link and steel stud dropped ceiling. Here is where the heart of the exhibit and the issues of the conflict spoke with intimacy if one listened.

The construction of the Wall, do I have to tell? Ten foot high by four feet wide steel stud panels faced in half inch thick homasote and veneered by artist Jeremy Clark with his "special sauce"; a vinyl plaster cement mixture sprayed and troweled on in several late Thursday night sessions. Each panel weighed about 70 pounds or more and had to be hand carried into the gallery tilted and locked together. This however was the easy part compared to working with cyclone fencing as ceiling material in a 30 foot long trapezoidal shape!

Did you ever consider bringing people from both sides together in the making of this project? Representing the conflict together to share a hand in the direct making of this project strikes me as having a powerful mutual healing quality to it. Did you involve folks this way to exchange dialogue through the process?

This is a really interesting question because it gets at the heart of a number of intentions and revelations. One of the original hopes was exactly what you mentioned; to invite artists from different mediums and cultural/political perspectives to "interact" with the Wall through their chosen art form whether it be performance art, music, dance, visual and digital arts, photography etc.

Since we are members of the gallery collective we chose a very short time frame in which to design, build and organize the installation. You know architects, the longer the horizon the more time to work on something else until deadline! So we began to ask for and contact recommended artists about 6 months before the scheduled opening, met with several that were interested to various degrees, and brought study models of the installation's design as it was progressing.

What we discovered through this initial process was that artists and architects have a wholly different idea of collaboration and how the design process works for them. What collaboration is to architects as a naturally and very iterative, changing yet inclusive process to the very end does not seem to be how others saw it or needed it. Some just wanted a theme and a space, others wanted to interpret issues form their own story that didn't specifically relate to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This might have been appropriate and desired in another project, but not for this one. Issues of control, both spatial and artistic became challenging, and we soon realized that this was our project (my wife and I) and that others were not really able to engage as we imagined. Now this might have much to do with our own vision of this and its content, as well as the small size of the gallery, but in the end, there were no other artists that contributed pieces or artistic interactions. We did however have a beautiful evening with a Jewish vocalist and an Egyptian oudist playing two sets from atop the mezzanine to a packed gallery crowd below, the session was called "Beyond the Wall...."

So your instinct on the collaborative potential as healing is spot on. I think what is needed in any future efforts is for the creative and organizing artists representing the various perspectives to come together at the beginning of any project before it has taken shape, form and its own dynamic. If one party owns it more than another it can have the same difficulties as the political manifestations we see in the conflict itself. It would be quite interesting to be a part of such a process and not one I imagine would go well, especially with a diversity of passion present. It would take a Dennis Ross to mediate the process.

Tell me how the wall is a narrator – of power, political negotiation, of history, as a canvas for resistance? How are walls archives of political contest, or bi-nationalism? Security Walls aren't always simply imposed as we might think by one nation next to another, but can be the result of more formal and informal conflict and collaboration – did the show address this duality?

The wall itself is the narrator and the metaphor, the protector and prison, the symbol and reality of a colossal failure to overcome the history and tragedy. It is depressing beyond all rationality, but cannot be denied. The story of its being is the story of two complex and competing narratives, and depending on your "stake" in the situation will determine what side you come down on, if you can come down from its perch. I think I could have built just this wall and nothing else and it would have been a catalyst for dialogue. There is text from a poem I wrote that runs across the sheet-rock wall opposite the Wall, one stanza of four reads,

Stories of the Wall
Told to the Deaf
Written on the Concrete Canvas @

I mentioned earlier the different entry points people bring to a discussion or lack thereof on this conflict. It's important to understand mine, since it is critical to intentions. My interest in architecture is at the intersection of its delivery process, ethics, law, psychology and theater, and as such I also practice as a mediator and arbitrator of design and construction disputes. My natural viewpoint is as a neutral and from there I navigate through issues. The complexity of this conflict is astounding and this installation is really a mediation through our own conflicting attitudes and opinions. While I can't and won't divorce myself from my jewishness and a commitment to a secure jewish state and my understanding of that as historically just, I cannot accept many aspects of Israeli policy and how it has affected the Palestinians in their pursuit and ability to form a viable and just state of their own. The irony of Israel building a Wall around itself is not lost on me. The installation provided the backdrop to present contradictory evidence and ideas and to think about one's own viewpoint, and if your eyes were opened at all, asked you to think about the other. It was ironic that those that came "certain" saw bias against their position whether they were pro this and against that or pro that and against this. I thought this was telling. Those that came with little knowledge or were themselves uncertain came away with a deeper sense of what the issues were as how deep they affect the inhabitants. To be sure, neutrality itself was looked at critically.

What was the most surprising thing to come out of the show, the most unexpected element, reaction, or consequence?

There was a point during one of the conversations we had with "youth" that was facilitated by Steve Busa, artistic director of the Red Eye Theater here in Minneapolis, who works in the public schools with students using a certain protocol for group dialogues. At the end everyone held various text which I had compiled and passed out randomly and they were asked to read aloud the text they held when they felt the need. It began slowly with one person reading their quotes and others listened respectfully until finished, then the next might read a competing quote, but after a few of these were read in this manner, someone interrupted another with their quotes, then another began and soon several voices were reading their contradictory quotes at the same time with rising volumes and in no time at all a cacophony of voices filled the gallery, all reading their text like it was their own words, some believing them, others choosing to because of the mood, and others fully opposed to the position or emotion they voiced. Some sat silent, unable or unwilling to read the voice they had been handed. I stood alone behind the Wall and listened as my own inner voice, the one that had been struggling for months inside me was played back to me by the participants in this magical exercise of empathy, a mirror of our mediation through this conflict. Perhaps this was the most unexpected situation that happened.

What do you think it will take to remove the wall in Israel/Palestine? What steps should be taken? How do you even begin that process?

Let me go back to the issue of entry point into this conflict. What you are doing with Subtopia is impressive and important, because it brings to our attention the multiple ways in which architecture, architects, planners and others not generally thought of contribute knowingly or unknowingly to conditions of injustice, political and military control and social decay through border treatments, walls, and other interventions. For this I am in awe of your efforts.

However, when it comes to Israel Palestine and maybe for other conflicts and those deeply connected to them, the conversation likely will go nowhere without understanding and accepting the deep seated historical and generational roots of each side. To only talk of Walls, checkpoints, border control, apartheid parallels and oppression of the Palestinians without the context of the psycho-cultural "jewish" issues of security, historical assimilation and diaspora, the particularity and marginalized self image struggling against itself now as a military power is to miss this internal conflict as entry point for many. If the struggle is justice and international law versus security, which would you pick? Not easy and a moving target as well. While the Holocaust was not overtly part of our installation, to not understand its core position, at least for diaspora Jews in thinking why the response from Israelis is so harsh and as many say not at all proportional is to miss something critical. To think that Jews in a position of power and control over their own destiny on what they consider to be their historical land for the first time in thousands of years would relinquish willingly this authority to anyone is unthinkable to me. To talk of a one state solution is preposterous in light of the jewish experience under other's authority, as I can't imagine them trusting the "democracy" of a one state condition, too many pograms and other memories lurking in the subconscious. But to say this might not change in ten or twenty years because of global conditions and potential catastrophes, who knows?

I suspect a Palestinian would give an equally passionate case for their cause and I would empathize and accept that narrative. I guess I am making a case for providing some of this imbedded apriori understanding for readers, because to me it isn't as simple as oppressor and oppressed manifested in concrete walls.

First, I appreciate the compliment, and respect your position. It's the very nature of walls to obliterate perspective - and what else can both sides do but strive to listen, accept, and try to help heal one another in anyway they can and move forward? I realize though that may sound hopelessly utopic at this point.
And I also agree with you that my critique can often times lack critical context and fall into its own trap of producing a sort of superficial image-based narrative of conflict space.
I think at this point all I can genuinely do is try to facilitate connections and dialogue between people, with people, and try to be more aware of how my own politics might sabotage that.
In some ways Subtopia has caused me to proceed with both a more open mind but also a counter re-enforced closed mind. It's easy to get fatally negativistic about all this stuff - but I'm trying to use the blog as a learning experience and to keep myself receptive to new ways of seeing and understanding how political conflicts transmit power through space.

On that note, how do you think architects can help to subvert these border spaces, what should – if any – be their role in acknowledging and intersecting with these contexts? That is, while architects often do work that is more complicit with the creation of borders and spaces of division, how can they get involved in a way that can undo the border, or, de-architect it in a way towards more ideal alternatives?

I don't think there are many who approach the profession in this manner, and if they do enter the field of politics and conflict, it is in the areas of sustainability and sustainable communities, performance of buildings, homelessness and affordable housing and other "design can make a difference and improve our social order" manifestations. Typical avenues for idealism and how the schools organize and funnel this safely through design studio with design/build shelter projects, housing prototype studies etc.

Too true! And well said. Green, sustainable, shelter, they can be such self-congratulatory buzzwords!

Weizman and others like yourself have surely opened up our eyes, but around here it's pretty much business as usual except a few who are engaged with these matters. I would say that only a few of the many architects I know came to the installation and many were friends who might only have come because it was ours. Perhaps, if the project was installed in the architecture school, or it had not been so specific to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, there might have been more engagement by the architectural community. Those that did come though surely appreciated the design and construction components, everyone loved touching the Wall. But I do agree that this type of work (installation) would be very challenging for students and take them into areas at the intersection of design and politics that would be fruitful, and this is the type of studio I would be interested in.

It's unfortunate the politics of architecture comes with its own stigma that we would need to consider abstracting it into something like a harmless generic but form-dazzling wall or something to get architects to ponder this basic currency of space.
I'm curious about people touching the wall. What was the sensation, the tactile intrigue? What was that all about? I love the idea that something as mundanely and humanly preventive as a wall becomes something totally sensual in some way. Are you telling me you rendered a full-on mystical experience in the gallery?

This was a really nice surprise because we loved this faux "Wall" as architects and artists, just looking at it and touching it, knowing that it was a veneer over homasote but looking and feeling like concrete with heft and visceral heaviness, yet, like you said sensuous in that paradoxical way. And then seeing others walk in and touch the wall and you could see them pondering how we got this in here and even how we got this "over" here, like it was a section of the Wall itself. Layer that with the images and symbols of conflict and it turned into a curious mix.

Sorry I didn't get to check it out. But I have a feeling something akin will resurface at some point – so what next?

You're right, this is not the end. I am designing an entry for the Just Jerusalem2050 competition you also posted about and while it isn't directly about the Wall, it does occur in the "Seam". In your post of March 14, 2007, "The Green Line", you stated, "To go with it, I wish there were a series of street signs or some other project that would build upon this one, guiding folks along the actual path of the Green Line as it was intended...a walk of shame tour ..." etc. By now you must know I don't see the Wall and the Green Line with the same characterization as you, but I do see them as outlining a space of the uninhabited that will become the site for this project. It won't be marked with shame but with humility and will try to recognize and teach through markers and commemoration the complexity of the issues of this conflict so posterity will be a witness to who we are as human beings in all our glory and madness. It will be about pilgrimage and hope.

This sounds excellent – I can't wait. Pilgrimages of hope – who doesn't want to go on one of those?

[All images of the installation and reliquaries were taken by photographer Bill Kelley. You can also download the Project Brochure as a PDF here on the Form and Content Gallery website that has the citations for the poetry on the Reliquaries.]