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A Point of View
A Point of View

A hard encounter at the Jerusalem Season of Culture

As part of a Holy Land festival, an art group problematises our journalist's role

In a city where a conversation cannot pass without mention of politics or social tension, The Jerusalem Season of Culture is now in its third year.  Situated at the apex of the last 4000 years of human history, the Season attempts to unite the fractured city around a constellation of events, narratives and occurrences that include a food trip to a Sacred Music Festival featuring ancient instruments and contemporary musicians. 

One section of the festival in particular places emphasis on public art, politics and social change, curated by Omer Krieger. As a part of this programme, Omer Krieger (himself a former member) invited the 'performative research body' and political art group Public Movement to respond to the festival.  In Spring 2012, the group staged a series of public debates at the New Museum in New York entitled ‘SALONS: Birthright Palestine?’.  The series deconstructed the institution of 'Birthright Israel', an organisation that funds first-time heritage trips to Israel for young Jewish adults aged 18-26.  As a part of the Season of Culture, Public Movement continue this research and extend the conversation in to the geographical heart of the issue.  

Instead of a public debate, I am invited to a 'Debriefing Session' at The American Colony Hotel, one of the key locations for diplomats engaged in the political negotiations and peace talks in Israel and the Middle East.  It's rumoured that Tony Blair had 2 floors dedicated to exclusively to him for three years while he was Middle East peace envoy. In the context of this beacon of contemporary politics, I arrive, sit at a table and await my one-on-one appointment.  Before long, two enormous bodyguards wearing earpieces escort me to a plush room and gesture to a chair across the table from a smartly dressed young woman clasping a clipboard, a pen and blank sheet of paper.  I am informed that I cannot record or take notes as she fixes me in the eye and begins talking quickly, but precisely.  

Over the course of half an hour the paper fills as she explains and annotates, non-stop, describing exactly how she, as an artist, and how I as a journalist, have come to be there at that exact moment.  She verbally weaves through the warrens of bureaucracy, money, agendas and funding outlining and exposing the complexity of the behind the scenes politics. She explains how I - a journalist at the Jerusalem Season of Culture - am contributing to the cogs that fall into motion simply by my presence.  It is all I can do to keep up as she whirls though names: individuals and organisations who have all made choices and taken positions on the festival. She specifically traces shared links with 'Birthright Israel'.  

The punch comes as she explains that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel attacked the event, and that negotiations attempting to encourage Palestinian participation in the festival have failed. She implies that my specific presence means that I am breaking the boycott. I am activated, crossing a line that for me had hitherto been invisible positioning myself as a political agent within a much larger context. 

Later I spoke with Dana Yaholomi from Public Movement to discuss her complex and challenging work... 

Susanna: What were your intentions for the piece and how did it come about? 

I proposed the project to Omer because I thought it was strange that he has the Schusterman Foundation at his back and within all the negotiations that are taking place to execute the festival no one is addressing it. The idea is that you as journalist are violating the boycott more than anyone else; because for us in Israel, our mere existence is almost a violation of the boycott.  I'm not presenting my position on it within the Debriefing Session, it's only to problematise your position.  

In the performance you state that you don't take a position, politically is that a helpful stance?  

Part of the ideology for me is that I'm not staying clean. I'm not a clean player, I will never be and I don't want to be because it takes the art and puts it out of the political situation.   I don't think being a left wing activist as an artist is necessarily being a good person.  What justifies our ongoing search in a way is that you are keeping yourself not attached to one position.  There are always moments in which I am coopted and I think it's fine. There’s no way around it.

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