Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Ramallah Lecture - Introduction

In the summer of 2008 I visited Palestine. ArtSchool Palestine had invited me over for the purpose of meeting and working with local artists and other people in the occupied territories. As the theme of my visit was relatively open, my Palestinian host explained that my stay here could be understood as a type of artistic research. That suited me fine as I had worked with activist investigations and artistic research in The Copenhagen Free University for almost six years.

I’ve followed the situation in Palestine for many years and the Palestinian cause has persistently challenged my political sense of justice. Since September 11th 2001 the conflict has been spun more and more into the War against Terror and life for the Palestinians appears to have become even more troublesome. But what do you really know as an outsider and a media consumer in the West? In terms of the struggles over territory that go on in and around this small piece of land some call Palestine, what actually shapes the scenery that is produced in the public sphere? My stay in Palestine was an opportunity to get closer to the everyday conditions in the occupied territories, although I was constantly asking myself about my own role as an artist and a political person in this situation of conflict.

Images and counter-images
The images of the Palestinian people that can be found in the West are an ambiguous representation. There are many more images than the often simplistic image that is created in the public sphere by the media. Alternative images are also created by more independent sources such as visual artists, photographers and filmmakers. In a sense, the conflict is continued through a battle of images. This image war entails a continuous production and preservation of images as representative of the warring parties. The image of the Palestinian people as “primitive” and fanatical Muslims is one that is continuously imprinted upon the minds of people in the West. Other images are representing the Palestinians as silent victims whose lives are totally defined by the Israeli occupation. In response to this lack — or, rather, distortion — of images, many artists and filmmakers have made an immense effort to portray different stories of the Palestinian situation, which has often given an insight into the precarious and complex conditions of the people in the occupied areas. These representations are often made with the rationalisation that “the Palestinians cannot represent themselves, so they have to be represented”. This idea is, of course, not unproblematic. This approach is a type of colonisation, as the post-colonial theorist Edward Said, among others, has pointed out. The independent voice of the Palestinian is often missing in many of those stories. This was therefore a complicated question for me — how could I visit Palestine as an artist with all my good intentions and solidarity without just reducing the Palestinian people and their situation into something simple?

Domination of space
Much of my knowledge about life in the occupied territories comes from critical and cultural sources such as films, visual art and books. What especially has grabbed my attention is the spatial analysis produced by various independent architects of how the occupation is maintained and expanded. They describe the stealth and cunning of the settler movement and the Israeli army and the way they are able to continuously dominate not only space but also behaviour. The strategies deployed are often developed in cooperation with architects and spatial planners who are helping to create a changing and unpredictable geography that shapes the everyday life of the Palestinian people. It’s a disturbing thought that, in this way, my colleagues in the field of spatial planning and architecture are part of a military machinery as an important ally in maintaining and expanding the occupation. I’m equally curious, then, about how the Palestinians develop methods of resistance and counter-strategies to the Israeli spatial domination in their everyday lives.

Witness account
At the very least I’d decided to keep an online blog during my visit where I could regularly recount my thoughts and experiences in the occupied territories. In this way I would take on the role of the witness who sets down his accounts for those at home. I would give a critical and personal picture of the conditions although I would also keep in mind my own potential role as a coloniser because, of course, my own gaze is never entirely free from the dominant images produced in the West.

Although, before I left, I thought I was somewhat well informed about life in the West Bank, I was astonished by how different my experience of the conditions were when I physically stood in the streets of Ramallah. That experience alone made it clear to me how far in reality everyday life in the occupied territories is from what is portrayed in the media. I was very much changed by the experience and the chance to be a part of the rich culture that was alive amongst the group of Palestinians with whom I spent most of my time for the six weeks I was there.

I called the blog ’The Ramallah Lecture’, as I understood my daily blogging to be a process of learning in relation to my observations and experiences during my stay in Palestine. I hope that it also enabled the readers to learn something about the complexity of life in a war zone. Due to security risks I have used pseudonyms for many of the people I describe in this text.