I’ve been turning on my axis wondering how to frame an essay, promotion or review about or for a show. I’ve been looking for a narrative construct that would help me to ‘speak nearby’1 my subject – as Trinh T. Minh-ha would say. My subject is your exhibition Exquisite Rotation at KIOSK,2 hosted during the appropriately titled festival Under Construction.3 Orbiting around the task at hand, I’ve been thinking about the 30-odd story structures that you discovered when making Palestine Blues (2006). You said that, when editing all of your footage, you chose to follow the road movie structure – the American genre par excellence. And you did, to the letter, before you then pulled that apart again and went off track, in a bid to draw your own lines in film. A road movie allows for an internal travel to unfold with chance encounters and shifting, changing obstacles met on the exterior. When your voice appears on top of the images telling the viewer an anecdote that inspired the title of the film: how when in New York you listen to Palestinian hip-hop and when in Palestine you listen to the blues, you reveal your road trip’s soundtrack. By sharing this snippet of information, you set a tone for the film and the journey. It’s personal. With this letter, I’ve decided to lose the third person, avoid the banal (re)writing of a press release and allow this bid to speak nearby your work to be personal too.
At your opening when I stopped you to ask if we could meet to talk about your show, you asked me bluntly, but with a smile, “Rebecca, what exactly do you want from me?” We were simply out of time to have a meeting. You were tired from your travels and the installation of your work, and you’d given all you could at the KASK Talk4 the night before (which fortunately I had a recording of). In your talk, you said that your work is an “insinuation not an evocation; it’s more sinister, putting the [task of] interpretation on the viewer.” You said you liked to disappoint too. Perhaps, then, I can interpret your reluctance to squeeze in another detailed talk about it all as you wanting me to find my own insights and seek my own truths in your work. In any case, I’m now not disappointed by your response; it just took me on another path, a longer route: from the West Bank to Nazareth and from Brussels to Ghent. At the talk that I couldn’t attend, but have since listened to a number of times, a woman asked you how you felt about contemporary technologies of engaging narratives and exposing structures of the media. She posed the question, “Are we beyond cameras?” As I recall, you replied with more questions to the tone of “Can the Internet substitute cameras?” and “How is it affected by net neutrality?” You basically returned the question straight back to her for investigation; a woman who, judging by her voice, sounded as though she grew up with the Internet. But you did give her something in return by adding that the pirate filmmaker who rips, copies, uploads and downloads film should be part of our film history – part of the history of avant-garde cinema, as it’s the pirate filmmaker who is really living outside of the structure. Thanks to the World Wide Web and the pirates who dwell there, my recent journeys to the Middle East have been facilitated by their illegal uploads.
I travelled to Palestine with YouTube, where your film, pirated and split into six parts of ten or so minutes in order to avoid detection, is uploaded with the supplement “A MUST WATCH DOCUMENTARY” added to its title. Each break in the narrative, each imposed chapter or avant-garde rupture, made me think of your installation of ‘Horizontal Cinema’: the term you coined from the horizontal loops you make by turning the film camera on its side to film and then projecting the film horizontally and not vertically so that the viewer can see the image the right way up, together with the film frame and its perforations. This technique exposes the film’s systematic breakages: the black lines that separate each frame. You expose the place where information falls out of the picture and into the void, and you draw to attention the sheer fiction of capturing the world in a small outlined box. On the Internet, your film loops from one chapter to the next, with every chapter overlapping slightly. The first so many seconds from the last clip are repeated on the next, making sure that no information falls into darkness. However, there is a cut in the experience of the film, a slice into the film’s flow – conditions that I gladly accepted at the time. The break gave me a moment to brace myself for the next chapter of a story that I knew couldn’t possibly have a happy end.
Thinking laterally about your horizontal technique, I was reminded of a lecture-performance that I’d seen last year, in 2017, called Probable Title: Zero Possibility by Hito Steyerl and Rabih Mroué. They, too, were exposing the partition, or division, between two cinematic frames by installing their visuals behind them on the podium over two screens, hung adjacent to one another. They proposed that the gap between the two screens is where the information seeps away, disappears, or is collected. How could one quantify the invisible? By conjecturing on probability, or more specifically zero probability, with formulas and equations of mathematics and physics, they made a bid to fathom the gap in between, what separates what is shown from what is not. With the slice on the editing table and the double screen installation as imagery or storytelling props, they questioned narratives constructed by powers to frame their politics, and their strategies to censor and bury information. All of this speculation and spectacle was in order to illuminate the hardest of truths, but softly: the disappearance of thousands of people during the civil wars in Lebanon.
In making Palestine Blues, you said that you were making a landscape film: a disappearing landscape film. While originally in Palestine in 2001 on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation with the intention of making one of your ‘horizontal loop’ works, in your free time, you were conducting research on water. You said that you were specifically looking into aquifers, “as a way to get beneath the surface (quite literally) and understand the forces at play without dealing with the usual issues of religion, nationalism, etc.” You directed your journey to the village of Jayyous because of the artesian springs that were to be found there. And once in Jayyous, where you’d met a kind farmer with a rich orchard who’d just received notice that there was to be a security wall built straight through his plantation, the bulldozers arrived. Standing there with a camera in hand and with an American passport that grants you all kinds of privileges, starting with freedom of travel, the farmer and villagers asked you to share their story with the world.
When you set out for the birth land of your mother and father, it was never your intention to make such a documentary or essay film; however, your path was interrupted by bulldozers and demonstrators both fighting for a water-rich terrain. You agreed to assume the responsibility and film the disappearing land. In doing so, you refused to show explicit scenes of conflict and violence. But you didn’t need to show blood or gore in order to show acts of aggression. When the Israeli bulldozers came crashing through your friend’s olive grove, leaving trees mindlessly broken, torn out of the ground, this action was symbolic for years of oppression, occupation and upheaval, the breaking down of families, their livelihoods and homes. It was violent enough. Better still, it was perhaps what is called palatable violence; it was a scene laden with pain and suffering and yet I had no excuse to close my eyes. It was an image from my fertile memory, an image I’d already seen and read about. It resounded with the uprooting and ravaging of the Joad family’s farm in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), another disappearing landscape film. In his book Figures of Dissent (2016), Stoffel Debuysere draws our attention to the shifting face of the agricultural machine in cinema, from an engine symbolic of cultivating culture in Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet Cinema to one that cut through the heart of it after the New Deal era:
“While in Old and New  we see a tractor crashing through the fences that stand in the way of the course towards collective agricultural productivity, here [in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath] we see a Caterpillar tractor demolishing the house of farmers who have been expropriated from their land. Its driver is no longer a farmhand at the service of a collective effort, but a muscle for hire working in service of the banks, trying to feed his family at the expense of dozens of other families.”5
In your film, we never see the person behind the steering wheel; you do not show us the face of that atrocity. You refuse to demonise the muscle for hire. But from time to time, checkpoint to checkpoint, we are confronted with Israel’s men and women for hire. You allow enough clandestinely captured dialogue of your encounters with them along the way to remain in the film so that the viewer can experience the senseless enforcement of the apartheid and the illegal appropriation of land that you witnessed. Near to the beginning of your film you state: “This picturesque olive grove is surrounded by hilltop settlements, but I framed them out.” In this short statement, you pronounce your power and agency as a filmmaker: “I framed them out”. In Palestine Blues, zooming in and out, framing and reframing, you manage to strike the perfect balance of revealing and concealing, finding a way to make the camera be constructive rather than destructive in your art – even though it seems, when looking at your exhibition, as though your inclination and politics is rather to dismantle the narrative, the image, the machinery.
When I saw your film, I had to think of the great films by Michel Khleifi. Since moving to Brussels back in the seventies to study theatre and television studies, he has been creating works that reimagine his home, which reimagine Palestine. Using fiction and documentary strategies, film and television, he created a window from the inside rather than using what he would call a ‘touristic approach’, like Pier Paolo Pasolini or Chris Marker had towards the same subject, from another vantage point. I’m reminded of them in particular because of a screening programme at Courtisane Festival in 2016 – Ma’loul Celebrates Its Destruction (1984) by Khleifi, Description d’un combat [Description of a Struggle] (1960) by Marker, Sopralluoghi in Palestina per il vangelo secondo Matteo [Location Hunting in Palestine] (1965) by Pasolini – that Khleifi, with a carte blanche invite from Courtisane programmer Debuysere, put together in order to frame a discussion on constructing narratives of Palestine.6 He screened three portraits of the same place through time, his own work juxtaposed with two other works made by visitors. Marker’s film is almost ‘Zionist propaganda’, according to Khleifi, as he forgets to question himself when making a film about a struggle from one single viewpoint, framed only from one side; and Pasolini’s slightly later work, Khleifi said, makes no real political comment on the occupation in which the Palestinians were living. Even as two outspoken leftists, both of them framed the ‘Palestinian problem’ out in these works.
In a poignant synopsis on Khleifi’s oeuvre, Debuysere reviewed the potential of Khleifi’s image making as a power to evoke change, stating: “As the continuity of their land [Palestine] gradually disappears from the life of Palestinians and the dominant narratives claiming the unavoidability and irreversibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gain evermore traction, more and more activists insist that any move towards possible futures must begin with memory”, and proposing the (rhetorical) question whether or not Khleifi’s images could “be of use as prisms to imagine the impossible?”7 One of the reasons that Khleifi’s films resound, I believe, with so many people, and myself included, is that they are so human. He aims to make visible l’invisible, trauma, memory, the human experience, and give that or they who cannot be seen the same level of drama and complexity as the universe, with equal importance and weight, and with all of the emotions we are capable of: despair, hope, joy, sadness... In your film every scene when your friend, the farmer, Sharif Omar, reads poetry to you with a smile until the last reading scene when he breaks down in tears, you reach that same complexity of tenderness and cruelty, of beauty and pain.
After seeing Khleifi’s films a few years ago, without any formal introduction, I invited him by email to come with me to see your exhibition. During one short first meeting I explained my hypothesis, drawing in parallel your status as an activist (artist) and his as a militant (filmmaker), and he was happy to entertain the request. As he drove me home through the city in rush hour traffic, he dodged the long car queues by zigzagging through town as if it were built on the side of a mountain. Every time we came almost perfectly juxtaposed with another driver he would say, “Don't worry!” He assured me that he had plenty of experience of seeing around corners, gained in his youth when averting the attention of Israeli police. While he drove, stopping and starting in the one-way street labyrinths of Matongé, Ixelles, Saint-Josse, we talked about his films, your film, your artwork, my artwork, life in Nazareth, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Brussels. Perhaps in fear of the term militant being misused or misconstrued, he asserted his position in filmmaking to me in stating, “I am a militant, yes; and I’m a militant filmmaker. But I’m not militant against someone. You can be a militant propagandist, or you can be a militant universalist.” It reminds me now of the question he had posed to the younger woman in Al Dhakira al Khasba [Fertile Memory] (1980), the novelist Sahar Khalifeh – if she considered herself a militant Palestinian woman under occupation. She replied, “It depends what you mean by militant.” In the film, she goes on to show that she’s militant in her writing. Her strength lies in following her desire and need to create art, against all odds; and she is powerful as a mother, a provider and educator. We talked about your art as having the ability to bring about socio-political change through its questioning of mass media, narrative constructs and representation. Your installations are not explicitly political but implicitly so; they activate the spectator to rethink the apparatus and ask questions, and that’s what I mean here by activist.
Fertile Memory was the second vicarious journey that I made on YouTube, while travelling alongside the themes in your work. It began with a rather intimidating FBI piracy warning that, only after 20 seconds of contemplating ‘unauthorised reproduction, distribution and exhibition’, melted away into the beautiful tragedy that is Fertile Memory. (I say ‘tragedy’ because, for Khleifi, that’s the noblest expression of the human being.) By following the lives of two female characters, one older and one younger, the spectator meets a mother, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, neighbour, colleague. I met women like any other, in all of their complexity, living in extraordinary circumstances: facing the everyday under the Israeli occupation and under dominant patriarchal forces. As Debuysere put it, “a double occupation in their lives [my emphasis].” Similarly to how you bring together in your exhibition, side by side, the archaic and the modern in installations where parts remain autonomous but create something spontaneous between them – a reaction, a sensation, an emotion, friction, fiction, poetry, aggression... – here, Khliefi brings together two generations of Palestinian women with two distinct mind-sets, the tradionalist and the modernist: his aunt who, living with her divorced and remarried daughter, struggles to come to terms with the new norms of family life and the writer, Khalifeh, a 30-something independent woman, living with the labels divorcee and single mother, struggles with the expectations she feels placed around her by the society she’s living in. Both women stride to live in the way that they think is meaningful. As Khalifeh puts it in a retort to the question if she felt happy in her situation, “My struggles make sense.”
Even though it’s more often Khalifeh who expresses her views on life, it steadily becomes apparent that both women have, in fact, much in common. They both feel as though they belong right where they are, they both work for a greater good – a certain collectivism or social sense – and they both have a sober awareness that there is a price to pay for fighting for what you believe in. His aunt’s worldviews, however, are revealed through her actions. Having lost her husband after the war of 1948, also known as the First Arab–Israeli War, we see her devote all of her time to her daughter’s young family. We see her relentlessly labouring in a factory or in the household, preparing food and singing her grandchild to sleep. Her strength of mind is portrayed in her determination not to surrender to grave injustice, as captured in scenes in which she point blank refuses to accept an offer to sell off or exchange her land – land that was illegally confiscated from her family 30 years prior – even at the behest of her family. Resigned to making a living in an Israeli owned factory, we can see that she will make compromises for the good of her family, but not the compromise of signing away her land. Farah Hatoum, Khleifi’s aunt, opens up to him by showing him her family souvenirs – photos of her loved ones, now in exile or deceased, hung on the living room wall, while she talks nostalgically about a time when they were together under one roof. It’s the intangible significance behind these family photographs, the French souvenir – to remember, that seems to keep her world turning. It’s the family structure, or perhaps the notion of how things are meant to be, that seems to ignite her constant strength.
Khalifeh, on the other hand, gains her strength from her translation of life into art. Even though she chooses for herself and her daughters to be free of the confines of the nuclear family, she shows her deep understanding of her surroundings, for women like Hatoum, for her elders, and for the more common conservative way of being found in her culture. Where Khalifeh lives, Nablus, she describes as a place where it’s hard to be your own woman and almost impossible to be alone with your thoughts. But it’s a place that will rally in times of hardship and congregate in celebration, and for this she finds it dear and worth fighting for and, at times, against. In her poetry she calls out, “Mother!” to a generation with their backs to modernity, their backs turned to her. In the closing scene, the epilogue of Fertile Memory, she recites lines of one of her poems that Khleifi illustrates with images of his aunt preparing wool, teasing it by beating it with a stick, “The past is no longer a hiding place. Nor is the present. There is escape and there is the struggle. She is stuck between the two.”
Khleifi had seen Palestine Blues some time ago when it had screened in Brussels as part of the festival Filmer à tout prix (2006), and he’d appreciated it greatly. He said that he’d told you that personally too. He felt that you also had managed to touch on the reality of the characters and the dramatic situations without exploding or generalising the situation. He expressed that a documentary, more than fiction, must be filmed without hate or anger but with love. The love you have for your friends and family, for your heritage and subculture, outweighed any feelings of hate in the film that you may or may not have. When he filmed Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Israel-Palestine (2004) together with Eyal Sivan, an Israeli director, he was reminded of a lesson from Jean-Luc Godard, that they were there to receive and not impose. Together, with love for their country and people, and for a history that is shared not divided, they set out for two months in the summer of 2002 to film. They agreed to have the same approach to everyone they’d interview, Palestinians and Israelis regardless of religion, along the green line – Route 181, named by the UN’s peacekeeping treaty that split the land in two. With that anecdote, my travelling master class with Khleifi had begun. To film with love and with openness was the first lesson of the day.
On our road trip from Brussels to Ghent, the soundtrack of Khleifi and I was composed of our communication in slowed down and articulated English, with interludes of broken (on my part) and poetic (on his part) French, punctuated rhythmically by giving space to the thoughts of one another. I had prepared questions about his work that would overlap with ideas that arose from your exhibition, but the journey became rather about spending time and sharing thoughts instead of answering questions. He talked generously in any case, and he mostly talked in films – concrete examples of sentiments that helped to bridge the language gaps. When I approached the subject of representation, he took, for instance, the film Lettre de Sibérie [Letter from Siberia] (1958) by Chris Marker to talk about subjectivity. Marker exposes the mechanisms of film reportage superbly in one scene by taking the same moving image material, footage of a Russian city and its people working on the land, and adding three distinct interpretations of the same images. The voice-over narrates the film from distinct ideological positions: pro-communist, anti-communist, and observational, questioning objectivity in image making and documentary approaches. Khleifi warned me, “When we can manipulate everything, we have the power. The problem then, when you have so much power, is to have ethics and morality.” This was his second lesson in filmmaking.
He told me how he remembers tales about the filming of Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), made after Leon Uris’s homonymous novel from 1957. He must have been only around eight or nine at the time. Shamefully, I had never heard of the film. I could cringe while admitting that now as, when I began to investigate it further, I realise what an incredible impact this ‘story’ – a treacherous word indeed – had on the way the world began to behold Palestine and the Zionist cause. It was a political device that framed out and tried to legitimise the situation between the occupiers and the occupied by creating a melodrama that stuck in the minds of the West. He told me that in a village beside Nazareth, where he grew up, the film crew had arranged fruit trucks to make it seem as if there had been an accident on the roads. The trucks were on their sides and there was fruit rolling through the streets. The film crew told the local people to help themselves and then filmed them doing so. They intended to use this imagery to show that Palestinians had attacked the trucks and were looting the reserves.
In the film Reel Bad Arabs (2006), after his 2001 book of the same title, Jack Shaheen named Exodus as the beginning of Hollywood’s vilifying of the Palestinian people: “Here, Palestinians are either invisible or they are linked with Nazis, perpetrators of horrific acts,” he states in the voiceover. In his book, Shaheen further unpacks the film and alerts us to the fact that these images were only one method used to erase a culture from a story. Language was a second tool used. In the film, the native Palestinian people were never addressed as such. They were only ever addressed as Arabs. However, the term Palestinian Jew was strategically implanted in the script a couple of times. According to Khleifi, when Paul Newman was asked why he took on the leading role in this film, he replied in brutal honesty, “for the money”. Khleifi could appreciate his candour as much as he could appreciate the magnitude of how Newman’s actions hurt his people. The third lesson he gave me was simply and explicitly never to lie in filmmaking.
This story made me start to empathise with your need to break things, or at least break things down into pieces so that yourself and others could see another reality – to see what an illusion is composed of. I told Khleifi about your desire to dissect the apparatus, open it up and expose how it works. I told him the anecdote that you’d shared about opening up your father’s watch as a child, the watch that your mother’s father had given to him, and how when you put it back together again it struggled to keep ‘proper’ time! This insight into the inherent force to understand the mechanics of things as stemming from being an insecure, inquisitive child who was searching for his own truths is something that Khleifi could relate to. It’s just that that desire manifests itself differently in his work. Khleifi exclaimed that you were grappling with the same or at least similar questions: “Why does the world not want to believe our narratives? Why does the world take the myths for truths? Why do people take me for a liar when I am not?” He continued, “This is my subjectivity, what I live.” While your drive to scrutinize mechanisms is revealed in the installations that you make of deconstructed and recomposed objects, his drive to understand the mechanics of the human being is revealed through his characters and portraits.
In the exhibition Exquisite Rotation, you display six works comprising a projector with a cracked lens, a projection screen that you cut into, the skeleton of an old projection screen – without the screen itself but a carpet hanging limply from its frame, a wood and steel shutter from a turn-of-the-century large-format camera and, in the main room of the exhibition, a former operating theatre, you lay bare dismembered and recomposed machines in an iteration of your horizontal cinema. When Her Eyes Lifted (1998/2016), a 16mm 3 meter long film loop, shows, when it gets moving, a woman opening what appears to be a large chain operated rolling door. The film is looped through modified projectors, driven by a home-made motor system combining re-purposed analogue and digital components. The film is projected onto three large custom-made projection screens that are positioned in such a way that the spectator enters the room and walks between them, heading directly towards a carpet that holds all of the machinery positioned low to the ground atop wooden crates. The filmstrip appears to respond to the movement of spectators; and depending on how many spectators are in the space, it will speed through the projector creating an almost machine gun like sound, as if burning off a couple of rounds. And then, as the spectator stands still, startled yet attentive, the film begins to slow down or gear up again for action. What we hear is ticking, and what we feel is suspense. We know that the cogs will start turning again but can’t (directly) figure out why or how. When making this horizontal cinema, you said that you were thinking of the theory of how looking at something alters it, and the relation between the power of the gaze and control. You are further toying with the spectator’s agency in the space, the state of security and insecurity, as the environment changes immediately with others in the room. The installation uses one speaker to amplify the live sound of your cinema-machine. At times, the sound overpowers the image, as the sound of the film moving is far more forceful than the image of the woman’s effort to lift the door. Rather than the performance of the woman in the frame attracting our gaze, it’s the frame itself that steals the attention, and the machine running it. Readjusting the playing order of film frames from vertical to horizontal, re-socializing the cinematic experience, and playing with the speed of chronology to assert the lack of linear consistency in human memory and thought, you turn the film reel back into its archaic form – the photogram. Your horizontal cinema-machine has no shutter; instead, like in a flipbook, the woman performs the shutter/door on screen and, as such, moves with the falling of images, or the stumbling of images – one tripping over the other. With the three screens representing three different moments in the filmstrip simultaneously, we witness the notion of the past, present and future stumbling over one another too. You had said that the horizontal loops are symbolic of carrying your past with you always into your present, and referred to these installations as evoking ‘contrapuntal consciousness’, a term coined by Edward Said. Thus “instead of a single light source, one point of view, one chronology, or mono-culture, there are multiple – a chorus of chronologies.”
Khleifi was struck by the perfect integration the installation has in the space. At that particular time of day, the small rectangular windows that circle the upper part of the rounded theatre were illuminated and mirrored by the light spots of the filmstrip’s perforations. The architecture and the artifact were in dialogue. There was something that I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint, and wouldn’t have the position or authority to say, that he saw immediately. He saw a Palestinian work, metaphorically speaking. He said that it was like the drawing of Palestinian society, “with a few things you must make something.” He called it a bricolage. He saw in it a desire to “come back”, as he put it, “come back to the intention, come back to the origin of the visual creation, the basis of society, in order to uncover what has happened.” He called it a desire to understand the archaeology of things. He sensed, from this, a sense of longing for home.
When entering a darkened side room of the exhibition space, a light flashes on with a loud, sharp, startling sound. It’s the sound of a steel shutter of an old land camera hung across the 90-degree corner of two walls. When the light engages, triggered by a motion sensor, the rectangular wooden panel creates a shadow that forms into a triangle, creating the shape of a roof in a simple, child-like drawing above the ‘wooden house’. The light that seeps through the circular shutter forms an upside-down love heart. It’s called Untitled Shutter (1999), but it could just as well have been called capturing home. As in other pieces such as Crack (2008), the broken lens sculpture that projects a landscape on the wall when a light is shone through it, you succeed in making poetic interpretations of objects that have been complicit in violence. As you explained in your talk, those early cameras were so large that it would take finance, investors and manpower to shift them. They were instruments of captivity in such colonialist endeavors as to bring back (home) the exotic, rationalize occupation and provide entertainment.
These works from the beginning of your career show that you have been grappling simultaneously with the paradoxical desire to deconstruct and construct. In deconstructing machines of colonialism and weapons of representation – the shutter of the land camera, the projectors, the lens, the screen – you are constructing objects anew. In the installation Exquisite Rotation (2015/2016), which provided the name of the exhibition, we see all of the elements of mass media exposed in a dramatic construction. One entire room is used for this piece. The focal point is a lectern holding a large open book, like an offering of something seemingly sacred. The book’s pages are made from a very fine paper that you had acquired – a surplus box of paper from the stock used to make British pound notes – and the edges of the paper are gilded in gold. At either side of the lectern, there is a source of wind, fans that blow the fine sheets in either direction. There is one central light source and one camera lens peering down onto the book ready to capture each exquisite flicker of gold as the sheets are turned around in the air. The image is projected live behind the moving sculpture on an enormous screen, and the spectator must again negotiate their gaze. Where to look? At the live action or its representation? There are microphones surrounding the lectern; in their multitude, they seem personified as eager journalists or an earnest congregation. The sound of the electronically generated wind and the sheets dancing in its stream is amplified in speakers at the back of the room. The pages are empty. One is compelled to provide the blank narrative for this unnamed book. Khleifi shared with me a story about the oublié, the forgotten, and about his father, who was a policeman during the British Mandate for Palestine. “He is still, at the end of his life, afraid to talk. He prefers more to forget than to remember – like the book!” He laughed heartily at the notion that if God was supposed to be so great in giving us a memory, how should we thank him for forgetting? You talked about the installation’s power to conjure up divinity, propaganda, hysteria, and even war through its sound, light source, staging and depth of drama. Since setting out on this journey with your work, these blank pages are filling up with politics, cinema, and memories that are not my own but a history that we share.
Zooming out of this one insinuation to think of Exquisite Rotation, theexhibition as a whole, Khleifi concluded that it had all of the elements of cinema: light, shadow, atmosphere, movement, sound... He sensed in your work that which he found in Pasolini’s films: a desire to show how we live between the archaic site and contemporaneity. And with this, he shared with me one ultimate lesson: “The most important dynamic in film is time.” Inspired by the work and teaching of Alain Resnais, Khleifi grew to admire filmmakers that have an obsession with time: past, present, future, mental time, imaginary time, subjective time, unconscious time, global time and, in his own story, Palestinian time. Each exploration and weaving of time(s) brings him closer to capturing the human experience and to how memory works. In Khleifi’s films, by staying close to home and by embracing his subjectivity, he shows a reality that is mirrored elsewhere, even though “they are stories made in Palestinian time.” He continued, “yes, the land, Palestine, is the backdrop for my tales. And yes, it is a land of great importance; but it is also just a land like any other. One that has its hardships and its beauty.” To call his home a ‘holy land’ is devastating to the people that live there. It is more than holy. It is a land on which people work, where they fall in love, care for their elders, bring up children, support their communities, have their ambitions, make art, write poetry and sing. He refuses to glorify the city in which he lived by filming the walls at which people fall to their knees, kiss and cry to, like other tourist-filmmakers have done. He further refuses to allow one homogenous narrative to represent his home. Instead, he simply shows us characters that we can relate to on a human scale.
In this darkened theatre of kinetic things, it’s your interest in the human and the machine, and the machine on a human scale (and I think you said you are working now on the concept of human as a machine) that is of the essence; it’s about technicity and affect, experienced standing inside the operating theatre. One of the reasons for bringing your work in dialogue now with Khleifi’s is because you, too, are refusing to minimise the art forms and the narratives that Palestine inspires. When you talked about your work, you said that you weren’t making work about Palestine. It’s true. Your works are not about Palestine, not solely, at least. You are working with global concerns and not merely local ones: themes of politics of representation and repression, the position of the spectator and the politics of the gaze, the genealogy of montage and forms of collage, disrupting the sequential ordering of shots, testing its limits and potential. I heard you talking about film theory and cinema, and the escapism and inspiration that they gave you as a young man at college in the US. I’m sure Khleifi, as a film teacher of many, many years, would have far more to say on your work in relation to Godard, for instance, as he seamlessly integrates the godfathers of cinema into each conversation. But I’d rather talk to you about a brilliant lecture that I attended on ‘Technology, Technicity and the Feminist Avant-garde’,8 where Alex Goody, a professor of twentieth-century literature, introduced me to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry that animates New York as a pulsating machine and Shelley Jackson’s hypertext Patchwork Girl that turns the reader into a surgeon who stitches a body together with text and image. But this is for the next letter, perhaps the next exhibition on the human machine. For now, I’ll concur that I see that your (expanded cinema) installations are greater than belonging to one time zone: they are complex, layered, informed, underpinned. Your study and performance of film is apparent in your handling of the experimental practice of relations: between images themselves or parts of image making machines, between images and screens, between spectators and screens, between screens and screens, and so forth. Every element of the cinema construction is at play, directionality, authority, positioning, sensation, affect... You’re creating postmodern situations that ask us to question reason, certainties, and ideals, and you construct them with modern objects, displaying them in such a way as to reveal their archaeology. This is your layering of time.
Between one frame and the next, there is possibility and impossibility. Or as Khleifi put it, “cinema is an almost language, which gives me the possibility to create and a possibility to deconstruct. To look is not to see and to listen is not to hear.” We addressed your expanded cinema as a similar double exploration, with both external and internal worlds evoked by the poetics that you choose. Khleifi expressed the need to find oneself in this exploration: one’s own language, one’s own sensibility, one’s own insecurity. He declared that as strong as he is as a world-renowned filmmaker, he is simultaneously as weak as the small child he was during the occupation: so great and so small at the same time. That’s his weakness and his strength, his memory of how things were. Perhaps that’s why he enjoyed so much your installation of blank pages. He found it “beautiful”, to quote him exactly, and it seemed to tickle him at the same time. In his work, he is combatting Israeli–Arab military structures, patriarchal structures, and extreme Islamists with art. He said, “When you are in this situation, you must be so strong to survive this provocation.” It seems to me that the provocation that he was talking of is the narrative constructs that you too are fighting. He constructs with cinema to look after la force du fragil, the force of the fragile, as he expressed once to Cahiers du Cinéma. This statement reminds me of Untitled Shutter, of how you deconstruct and recompose in order to show the fragile play of shadow and light as the force behind the object, the artwork. The focus may be at first on the technic of the construct, the sound, the sudden movement, the drama, but it’s the light and the shadow that are of the essence.
You began your KASK Talk by introducing the mechanisms portrayed behind you in a diptych of archival drawings, which were, fortunately for me, the only images that you chose to be projected for the duration that you spoke. The images were of a Geneva Mechanism, which is also known as the Maltese Cross. Satisfied by my first search result on Google, I found that the “cross is a gear mechanism that translates a continuous rotation into an intermittent rotary motion. The rotating drive wheel has a pin that reaches into a slot of the driven wheel advancing it by one step,” according to Wikipedia. With a simple diagram and this concise definition, I could follow then your fascinating discovery that this mechanism is found in every clock, camera and gun – all of which could be interpreted as symbols of death. Your excitement for the legacy of this mechanism is not surprising, as it’s this mechanism that reinforces the binaries that you are moving in between – betwixt screens, frames, cuts, and... It’s worth noting that, in your Horizontal Cinema, you consciously removed the Geneva Mechanism out of your machine.
When listening to your talk and hearing you list off the elements inside of your work, the binaries that you intersect, connect and cut, the ‘et scene’ in Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] from 1976 comes to mind. I’ll borrow your words to jot down what I mean: “light and darkness, sound and silence, movement and paralysis, life and death, possibility, impossibility, security, insecurity...” Et, et, et... What seems as the simplest equation yet duplicates itself throughout your exhibition is the multiplication and complexities of twos. By bringing old and new works in dialogue with one another, you bring us full circle, but the circle is always expanding, like the mechanism – rotating and pushing one step forward. And, and, and, like the principle of montage that Godard and Miéville demonstrate, that of addition.
Without simplifying things into dualisms and dichotomies you rather connect things, loop things, rotate things, look through, behind and between things and create (new) things. Take for instance the first work one sees when entering your exhibition, the installation Silver Screen | Golden Dome, one could read it as something between Cinema ET Jerusalem. There is a large half-oval cut into a silver projection screen, forming a flap of orange fabric to droop downwards over the horizontal bar of the frame. A meter or so away there’s a plinth holding a set of lenses. When one stoops down to look at the screen through the lenses, we see the shape the cut out makes rotated and the illusion of the Dome of the Rock appears. This piece refers back to one of your core concerns, that of representation, and is a reminder that things are dependent on the lenses one looks through, the distance between the lens and object, and the cut. All of these elements determine how we see and perceive things. It further reminds me of the essence that Khleifi tries to grasp in his work: time. As he put it, “We are looking at the same answer, but at different times.” I’m not sure who exactly he meant by ‘we’: you and him, me and him, humanity and him... who knows. But I could certainly relate to the sentiment. This journey alongside your work has taken me to and fro in order to turn things upside down or, rather, on their side in a bid to see things from another angle whilst looking at the same answer from a different time and place. It’s an attempt to understand another artist’s work, another person’s modes of communication, and to speak nearby them.
- 1“I do not intend to speak about. Just speak nearby”, is the opening line of the Vietnamese filmmaker, theorist and composer Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 16mm experimental ethnographic documentary Reassemblage (1983). Her voice appears over images that she shot in Senegal, explaining her approach to the people, place, rhythms of life and to the footage that she composes in a non-linear manner, with abrupt and disjunctive montage and an experimental soundtrack. This phrase became a philosophy for Minh-ha, and a philosophy for many others, coined by her. Since studying her films in a documentary seminar given by Marion Porten at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, this statement has always stuck with me, and indeed become a way of approaching representation in moving images and in writing.
- 2Exquisite Rotation by Nida Sinnokrot (18.02-08.04) held at KIOSK, Ghent. Curated and coordinated by Liene Aerts and Wim Waelput.
- 3Under Constuction Festival
- 4KASKlezingen [KASK Talks] is a series of lectures organised by KASK / School of Arts in Ghent. The KASK Talk by Nida Sinnokrot (15.02.18) was held in the anatomic auditorium in KASK, known as Cirque, on the evening prior to the opening of Exquisite Rotation that was to be held along the corridor in another wing of the former medical teaching school. Sinnokrot’s talk was moderated by Godart Bakkers.
- 5This excerpt comes from a book composed of letters written by Stoffel Debuysere to or about ‘figures of dissent’. In an epistle to the film programmer Ricardo Matos Cabo, the fourth of five letters in Figures of Dissent, while proposing the question “What has become of Europe?”, Debuysere casts his net far and wide to explore and analyse “cinematic fictions that manage to say something about the state of the world and the possibility of resistance.” Figures of Dissent is uploaded and published for free, with Debuysere’s permission, on the University of Ghent’s website – to which I must add the supplement ‘A MUST READ PUBLICATION’ to its title.
- 6Michel Khleifi was an artist in focus at Courtisane Festival 2016. The DISSENT! talk with Khleifi on this screening selection is currently republished online on Sabzian’s website for the occasion of the public talk and screening of Ma’loul Celebrates its Destruction (1984), The Poetics of Resistance – A Cry for the Soul of Palestine: an evening with Michel Khleifi, to be held in Brussels on 28 April 2018 at the Union of Progressive Jews of Belgium (UPJB), organised by the community Another Jewish Voice. For further details, see the Sabzian agenda
- 7Published on Stoffel Debuysere’s website Diagonal Thoughts, where he archives documentation of DISSENT!: a series of talks organised in the context of his research project Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema) (KASK / HoGent), in collaboration with Argos Centre of Media and Art, Auguste Orts and Courtisane. DISSENT! Michel Khleifi (09.12.15) was held at STUK / Cinema Zed, Leuven. Preceded by a screening of Al Dhakira al Khasba [Fertile Memory] (Michel Khleifi, 1980).
- 8This lecture was held at BOZAR, Brussels, as part of the colloquium The Power of the Avant-Garde (23.11.16). Alex Goody’s talk was by far the most exciting of proposals, bringing feminist literature into mechanical and bodily movement. Her dynamic talk can be heard online here.
With thanks to Liene Aerts, Chantal van Kempen, Michel Khleifi and Nida Sinnokrot
Image (1) detail from Crack (Nida Sinnokrot, 2008), photo by Nida Sinnokrot
Images (2) and (5) from Palestine Blues (Nida Sinnokrot, 2006)
Images (3) and (4) When Her Eyes Lifted (1998/2016), installation views by Tom Callemin
Image (6) from Al Dhakira al Khasba [Fertile Memory] (Michel Khleifi, 1980)
Image (7) Untitled Carpet (Nida Sinnokrot, 2008), installation view by Tom Callemin
Image (8) detail from Untitled Shutter (Nida Sinnokrot, 1999), installation view by Nida Sinnokrot
Image (9) Exquisite Rotation (Nida Sinnokrot, 2015/2016), installation view by Nida Sinnokrot
Image (10) Silver Screen | Golden Dome (Nida Sinnokrot, 2018), installation view by Nida Sinnokrot