Monday, February 19, 2007
Art and Social Innovation
By Larissa Sansour
What appeals to me most about the Kaospilots’ way of thinking is the willingness to negotiate new ideas, challenge orthodox thoughts and systems and realize that the education of new generations goes hand in hand with the constant flux of our contemporary culture.
We probably live in one of the fastest changing and exhilarating times in the history of civilization. The internet revolution as well as easier travel has meant that the world has become smaller and closer and has an easier task of exchanging ideas.
Yet, we are living in a world that is more divided than ever. Globalization has meant that a certain half of the world is enjoying tremendous privileges while the other precisely because of it is becoming poorer and more isolated.
As an artist from Palestine and an international board member at Kaospilots, I identify most with the need for social innovation and internationalization.
The good life
How can Kapospilots become the best school “for” the world? While the world is at war, advertainment and consumerism have taken on even a more ardent role. We are told by media and corporations that we are happier than ever even if this fantasy world that they create conflicts sharply with the reality we live in. We are told to believe we could achieve yet a higher level of satisfaction if only we satiate our desires and wants, which always comprise of more and more acquisition of material goods. So, these commodities become palliatives to the collective bad conscience of our society never questioning the cause of its many ailments; be it alienation, depression and general disinterest leading to escapism.
The West and the other
It is important in this equation to take into account the phobia and fear that western countries are experiencing towards many countries in the world now, most importantly the Middle East. I think many of these problems are due to the fact that we don’t know much about the Middle East. Usually in such predicaments, people tend to generalize. If you do not know of the nuances of a particular culture, you tend to categorize it in your brain as this, that or the other. When it comes to the Middle East, the analyses are always extremely reductive and even the ones that attempt to bridge differences often end up underlining the stereotypes we already have of this other “foreign” culture. If we really and honestly want to live in a world that is just and enlightened, we have to really understand each other’s cultures. Without this acculturation, I find it hard to see how social justice or innovation on the international front can take place.
Art as innovation
As an artist, dismantling stereotypes and building cultural bridges is one of the things that concern me most. Artists have historically had the onus of reflecting society’s ills and promises and acting as society’s social conscience. Artists have always been pioneers in innovation; the criticism of set systems and dogmas and the offering of new modes of thinking and perceiving. I speak mostly of avant-garde art here, for it is the one that has posed and still poses many challenges for governments, institutions and corporations. Historically, avant-garde artists have clashed with government policies where their practices were shut down by deliberate cuts in funding and resources or in more extreme cases, as in the case of many artists in the Soviet Union, were simply killed.
Art as commodity
So it is, that we unfortunately still find ourselves at a time where avant-garde art still lags behind, in terms of funding and sponsorship, commercial art. This is so because it is much easier to treat art as a commodity, as in the case of commercial art. It is by far more lucrative to be able to set a price on a painting or sculpture as you would with any other sellable object than it is to sell the challenging notions and values of avant-garde art that comes in the forms of actions, happenings, performances, public interventions, video, sound art, new media art and so on.
Avant-garde art offers a challenge because it is problematic. Firstly, it can be made of perishable materials or be of an ephemeral nature and therefore pose problems in the goods exchange. Secondly, it can often critique social injustice, economical inequality, power distribution, sexism, homophobia, racism and so on.
So, avant-garde art is somehow threatening because it holds in itself alternative value systems and is culturally transgressive.
Crucial for innovation
Yet, aren’t these alternative value systems what are urgently needed in our increasingly consumerist contemporary western society? Isn’t the way to achieve world harmony and understanding greatly enhanced by transgressive cultures?
It is in this particular dialogue that I find avant-garde art’s role to be most important. If art can offer these possibilities then it is logical to assume that art is beneficial if not crucial for an acceleration in social innovation. Yet, in our painfully escapist world, art is yet again marginalized. Its role, rather than being at the centre of all social exchange, is outcast to the fringe of it.
In my work, I attribute much of world conflict to a lack of understanding of each other. Here, I refer mostly to the collective image that each culture has of the other rather than the interests of these countries’ governments. For these two are different, however the former’s lack of knowledge and understanding fuels the atrocities of the latter’s actions.
My own work deals mostly with these political realities and my focus at the moment is mainly the Middle East conflict. My videos offer a different point of view of the Middle East than the one that one usually sees on television. So, in a sense, the videos challenge our clichés of the Middle East as well as the accuracy of world media in their reports of the conflict.
My work is often described as new or offering a new or alternative view of Palestine. Yet, these notions of my work being different than what is “real” is only fed by our prejudice of what, say, “real Palestinians” should be like. It is often clear for me the extent of damage that erroneous reports of the media have left on the people and that people seek even alternative experiences in order to yet underline the already existing stereotypes they already have. It is of course more comfortable that way.
Media is no longer interested in finding multiple angles, but is sufficed by receiving the stereotypical data. News information is often channelled by certain data centres that are incongruous with the reality on the ground and at worst have an interest in camouflaging certain truths for political reasons. Is it not strange that big respectable satellite channels such as the BBC and CNN have to run little adds on their news promoting the objectivity of their reports? It strikes me that if that was the case, then they would not have the need to keep reiterating these statements.
Middle East video art
In response to this discrepancy between western media and the political reality, video as a medium is flourishing in the Middle East. Many contemporary Middle Eastern artists use video in their work. Since media and representation are focal points in Middle Eastern art, it is easy to see why video art is maybe the most appropriate or that works best for these purposes.
In their work, these artists offer many examples of misrepresentation of Arabs in western media and society. Misrepresentations that are often overlooked, but that are yet so poignant in the forming of certain attitudes and biases towards the Middle East. The Hollywood institution, which is often simply looked upon as entertainment, is instrumental in the indoctrination of erroneous and misleading images of the “other”.
Jack Shaheen interestingly addresses this phenomenon in his book “Real Bad Arabs”. The author studied Hollywood’s representation of Arabs and Muslims from 1896 to 2000 and found out that out of 1000 American films only 12 films had a positive depiction of the Arab, the rest were all negative. So, it is no wonder that we have a subconscious mistrust of the cunning misanthropic blood-thirsty, irrational Arab.
Lebanon and Palestine
Not surprisingly then, art in the Middle East serves mostly as a tool to critique and to rebel against misconceptions and political structures. Avant-garde art has increasingly gained wind especially in Lebanon and Palestine; two places that have seen significant political turmoil in their recent histories. Art in Lebanon often reflects upon the Lebanese identity; deconstructing Lebanese history in order to understand the complexities that lead to the Lebanese civil war. Palestinian artists mainly address their contemporary realities. Their art somehow serves as a form of resistance for a culture on the verge of obliteration.
So, it is from this perspective that I form the ideas for my work. One of the most essential elements in my videos is to find a universal language. My work has a lot of pop references and American film elements especially from the 60’s and 70’s. In that way, I find that the works are much more easily accessible or appealing to a western audience.
I often try to juxtapose the reality of the middle east to that of a comfortable western living. Situating those two different realities in such close proximity underlines the tremendous differences in social, economic and political realities that it makes it clear why there is room for conflict. In Happy Days, a short 3 minute video, you see the everyday reality of Palestinians ranging from checkpoints to house demolitions set against the jolly music of the American sitcom Happy Days. In this context, the excruciatingly repressed imagery from the Middle East are sugar-coated in the most merry of songs to sculpt a reality that could only be ascribed to entertainment – not too far from the way news operates.
Ahmad Dabashi a professor at Columbia University and the founder of the Palestinian Film Project “Dreams of a Nation” perhaps best illustrates the challenges that face Palestinian artists and filmmakers when he writes: “What happens when reality becomes too fictive to be fictionalized, too unreal to accommodate any metaphor?”
Fiction and reality
In my work, the blurriness between reality and fiction could probably be most clearly seen in the video Soup Over Bethlehem, were a “normal” Palestinian family is seen eating a traditional Palestinian dish mloukhieh. The piece is 10 minutes long, mostly kept in black and white except for the food which is in colour. The family members discuss topics ranging from the mloukhieh dish they are eating to world politics. The piece crosses the boundary between documentary and fiction. It is hard to figure out what is staged and what is just natural conversation. Yet, the piece flows as one coherent entity. In this work again, the focal statement is our perception of reality and to what extent can objectivity be maintained.
Understanding each other
The Palestinian plight is maybe exemplified best in this quote from one of the most influential characters of experimental film, Jean Luc Goddard: “… and the camera has made Palestinians the subject of documentary”.
This is at the core of the conflict; in our understanding of the other in terms of people to analyze rather than analyzers. The act of understanding one another’s culture should not be a charitable act but an honest one based on mutual respect and a genuine interest in each other.