One Ground: Four Palestinian and Four Israeli Filmmakers

Well, John left us with the notion of “hold that thought,” and Ralph began to talk about the way that we construct meaning out of experience. I want to talk this morning about meaning. This symposium is predicated on the premise that scientific inquiry and new instrumentality constantly burn new information into the brain’s synoptic structure, providing us with new vocabularies, allowing us to access visual information that was previously nonexistent, unknown or inaccessible. Vanguard artists have been investigating new neurobiological models and methods as the basis for aesthetic strategies and to develop new constellations of visual meaning.

In our time “the new” has been the hallmark of artistic creation, and each revolutionary step in science, psychology, biology and engineering has eventually found its way into media and artistic practice. But the photographic and cinematic vocabularies used by artists involved in political expression has remained remarkably conservative, grounded in the metaphor and the pathos of a picture. When the site of pictorial communication is also the site of political struggle, artists have, for the most part, utilized traditional expressive codes and forms only slightly modified by advanced strategies.

At the California Museum of Photography, we recently presented artists whose film work pointedly differentiates between the radical and traditional pictorial strategies. Last fall, as you’ve heard, we showed Warren Neidich’s “The Mutated Observer,” and currently we have organized “One Ground: Four Palestinian & Four Israeli Filmmakers.” Both these exhibitions demand that the viewer engage in an analysis of the conventions of pictorial communication. Both exhibitions vigorously examine and explore the representation of space and time. Both demonstrate extensive visual vocabularies for constructing and communicating meaning. But in the end, the exigencies of the dense, layered, metaphorical and symbolic communication necessitated by the exchange of highly politicized expression and the obligation to address specific histories has pushed the work in “One Ground” toward more conservative techniques.

The work in “One Ground” suggests that effective and persuasive storytelling and political statement is of necessity several generations behind advanced technology; that while the brain is adaptive, the psyche is not quite as malleable. Technology has been used by artists to expand old visual codes through new strategies and it is used by artists to construct new meaning in a new visual language. As a counterpoint to some of the more vanguard work that undoubtedly other panelists will discuss today, I’d like to examine some of the ways new technology in “One Ground” expands traditional, emotional, psychological and political expression.

As a foil to the obsession with waiting and slow time that we have just been watching in Ori Gersht’s “Dew,” let me show a minute here of Warren Neidich’s “Being Prada Seen.” Here, Warren, tipping his hat to both the simultaneity of neurobiological processing and digital instrumentality assembles a suite of pictorial devices that also point to other phenomena that have also come out of technology: cool fashion, MTV, video games. The frenzied pace of the piece leaves no moment of stasis or repose. The image itself moves toward information overload, randomness, and disorder just shy of visual noise. But what devices does one use if you want to convey just the opposite. A world of endless suspension and suspended animation; a world that is defined by the politics of stalemate and inertia as opposed to Warren’s vigorous world of aggressive action and intervention.

“One Ground” looks at films that address issues of exile and loss, separation, identity ands home, and presents us with a small encyclopedia of cinematic devices that convey waiting and lack of resolution. Michal Rovner’s “Border,” shot on the Israeli/Lebanese border, is the visually most adventurous film in the exhibition, and the closest to Warren’s in it’s use of radical computer effects. It employs two major strategies to elicit, as the subtitle of her monograph describes, “the space between.” This is the space between antagonistic countries. The anxious, edgy space between certainty and fear, between solidity and dissolution. Rovner’s primary device, one that John discussed earlier today, is pictorial Impressionism. Created both in the camera, and in computer-mediated post-production, to elicit soft focus, color blending, overlays, blur. One hundred years ago, as John pointed out, these devices signified for the Photo-Secessionists melancholy and nostalgia. During the last fifty years, soft focus has been used by a kitsch, popular culture to coerce the meaning of art into the narrow categories of the lyrical and beautiful. Rovner’s blur and dissolution contains residues of these popular sensibilities, but in “Border” Rovner’s pictorialism transforms beauty into menace, creating the ambience of hovering urgency, dread and uncertainty. The second device Rovner uses is the long lens shot over great distance, which simultaneously compress space at the same time it slows down time. The long lens allows Rovner to foreground the background. In this film the silent, omnipresent protagonist is the landscape, the “one ground,” if you will, that defines the entire exhibition.

Michal Rovner, Border. 1997-1998

In Warren’s “Being Prada Seen” technology is used as a method of recording reality, to render reality into abstracted pixilated visual form and to signify new information. Rovner uses the same technology, to meld reality with an established vocabulary of pictorial meaning and to signify human uncertainty, anguish and discontinuity. Her work accrues meaning precisely because the codes she utilizes have become layered, rich and multidimensional through the incremental patina of use. For Warren, technology is used as a way to radically distance the artist from quotidian reality. His film is less an exploration of an environment than an exploration of a camera’s intrusion into that environment. It is self-conscious, self-referential study of the technology of the digital filmmaking process. Process is given place over meaning. In Rovner’s case, as is true of almost every film in “One Ground,” the work creates out of the painfully particular the universal by the construction of a visual parable that always has at least two narratives. There are always two points: the explicit and the implicit; the literal and the symbolic; the personal and the political. In Rovner’s work meaning is given place over process.

Michal Rovner, Border. 1997-1998

Ori Gersht is another Israeli who chooses the mechanics of new technology to comment on this world of slow time and uncertainty. In “One Ground” we show a suite of three short films. You watched his piece “Dew” when we began. Each of these films is shown on an endless loop. Gersht positions his camera on borders between regions of Israel and Palestine control. “Dew” was filmed in the Negev desert in real time. The film records the evaporation of dewdrops from the lens. As the dew evaporates, the camera’s autofocus extends the camera’s viewpoint from lens out into the landscape to eventually reveal an isolated Bedouin camp.

Ori Gersht, Neither Black or White. 2001

In the film you are now watching, “Neither Black nor White,” Gersht uses time-lapse photography in the Galilee. Cameras placed on top of a hill in the Jewish quarter of Nazareth it looks down into Iksal, the Arab village below. “Neither Black nor White” compresses approximately five hours into five minutes, but it lingers more on the extremes of visibility, blackness and unbearable brightness. With the endless loop of both films, we are presented with a world that is always in the process of becoming. Ori Gersht, as Rovner, began his career as a photographer, not a cinematographer, and the pictorial space of his film is derived from the operations of a still rather than a motion picture camera and grounded in the most unadorned, fundamental notions of photographic composition. Yet it is much more difficult to utilize composition and pictorial and spatial abstractions alone to convey meaning. Sontag’s dictum that “only that which narrates can inform” underwrites Gersht’s move from photography to cinema. The political meaning is embedded in the temporal unfolding, cadence, narrative and repetition of his films. The hunting lens never finds its prey or rest in resolution.

Emily Jacir’s film “From Texas with Love,” is even more pared down than Gersht. There is no change of view; no change of focus no change of exposure. Even the particulars of the narrative do not modulate. The plot, if you can call it that, is totally determined by the viewer’s choice of MP3 song to accompany the film’s continuously looped one hour dive. “From Texas with Love” was filmed in west Texas where Jacir drove for one hour without stopping, filming the road ahead. The accompanying soundtrack is chosen by the viewer from a compilation of 51 songs selected by Palestinians. I’ve just arbitrarily thrown three or four together here. Jacir asked each person, “If you had the freedom to get in a car and drive for one hour without being stopped (imagine there is no Israeli occupation, no Israeli soldiers, no Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, no bypass roads) what song would you listen to?” Jacir utilizes media’s global presence and video’s immediacy to explore the interchangeability, even the amalgamation of vastly different landscapes and cultural products.

Emily Jacir, From Texas with Love. 2002

She first inscribes the expansiveness and literal freedom of the Texas highway on the impossibly claustrophobic, policed and restrictive traffic in Palestine–a tragic and ironic comment at this moment. Then Jacir uses the slipperiness of global media to recontextualize, integrate and finally fuse one culture’s commodity pop music with another’s political aspirations, suggesting, as is also implied in her transnational landscape, that all distinctions have fallen away between the political and the aesthetic. In this world, Madonna’s “Material Girl,” which you’ll hear in a minute, one of the choices in the 51 songs makes perfect sense next to Shaaban Abdel Rahim’s “Bakrah Israeli,” which translates into “I Hate Israel.” The inexpensive video camera, the homemade DVD that Jacir sends back as a postcard to Palestine, the ubiquity of the MP3 files and players forge continuities over the most discontinuous landscapes giving “From Texas with Love” a momentary upbeat presence. But, in the end, the freedom of the open-road is both endless and tedious. Watching this piece, the viewer is torn between opposing codes of reading the open-road: freedom and unyielding boredom. The absolute uniformity and singularity of the vista and vantage point leads not to liberation, but to waiting for a miracle. The film begins to oppress like a Warholian shot held interminably. Jacir’s cinematic illusion of unbounded space is finally a vision of uneasy time, a headlong rush to nowhere without the profound longed for liberation.

It is the Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi, who in the film “Waiting” most explicitly constructs a parable about time and inaction. Masharawi is best known as a radical documentary filmmaker, whose previous film “Interzaar” critically scrutinizes the Gaza refugee camps condemning the international community and the United Nations for providing bread and shelter rather than infrastructure and economic opportunity. It is significant that “Interzaar” has also been translated as “Waiting,” for it is the hard-edged documentary flipside of the parable Masharawi presents in the film you are watching. Unlike any other film in the exhibition, in “Waiting” there is no cinematic signification of human suffering and alienation, no ambiguous pictorial space, no special effects, no agonizing tragedy, no exotic symbolic tour de force, and no overt political reference. Indeed, the only hint of moral ambiguity concerns the simultaneous overt recording and covert surveillance by the studio’s video cameras. But in the context of the exhibition and Masharawi’s other work the narrative absolutely limits the potential for multiple interpretations. Yet the film is amazing compelling, building on wit, intelligence, absurdity, deadpan delivery and the most conventional cinematic techniques to develop a simple story illustrating a moral and political lesson. The film succeeds precisely because of its elegant simplicity, not because we are challenged by its cinematic technique. Thousands of years of parables, allegories, proverbs, and satires have cognitively prepared us to effortlessly blend the visible story with the unseen polemic.

To sum this up, let me say that all of the films in “One Ground” use the instruments of new technology to edit, acquire and transform information. But the telling of their stories relies on tradition pictorial codes and vocabularies. In theorizing “Being Prada Seen” Warren writes “the video explores how fashion, especially by Prada, works in a kind of space where political, social, and economic elements interact very easily.” But I would argue the high speed transfer of a digital video, which causes the breaking up of the image, and the other technologically based devices of the film are not yet resonant enough to hold such meaning. Warren wants us to believe that traditional political discourse can be embedded in these strategies, but in “Being Prada Seen,” as opposed to the films in “One Ground,” technology brings new information that does not yet produce narrative insight nor political redemption.